Positive Product Design

Positive Product Design™: A New Direction For Technology And Human Potential

By Courtney Bigony

“Technology has the potential to increase the tonnage of human happiness on our planet.” – Martin Seligman, Father of Positive Psychology

How is it that life has gotten so much better for people, but they feel so much worse? Many signs have pointed to human progress over the past 200 years–increased life expectancy, higher literacy rates, better access to education and information–yet, people are more depressed and anxious than ever before. 

Some fault technology, and organizations like the Center for Humane Technology are holding tech companies accountable for software design and business models that addict and manipulate users by capitalizing on human vulnerabilities. They expose how social media companies use persuasive design practices to influence compulsive behavior and how those practices are having a massive negative impact on individuals and even society. These design practices, the damaging effects on mental health, the exploitation of user data, and the role social media has played in political polarization and the spread of misinformation, are highlighted in the 2020 documentary: The Social Dilemma.  

While I don’t think it’s fair to blame technology for all of society’s ills, the reality is many apps haven’t been designed to protect people’s attention or minimize the potential harm. Even fewer apps have been designed in an attempt to meet people’s deeper psychological needs. And we have been suffering as a result. 

Positive Product Design™ changes the relationship between technology and the people who use it. 

This new method of product design combines four sources of product innovation–customer feedback, market research, internal feedback, and the latest science of thriving–to offer a deeper understanding of human needs and how to meet them, as well as a guide to making better product design decisions. 

The problem with tech today

Most of today’s technology–especially social media apps–motivate through systems of punishment and reward. Our current technology mimics an outdated theory of motivation. Psychologist B.F. Skinner developed the theory of behaviorism based on the belief that free will was an illusion and that behavior could be controlled through positive and negative reinforcement. 

Push notifications and endless scrolls of information are a form of positive-intermittent reinforcement that draws people in again and again. Slot machine manufacturers use the same design to keep people glued to their products. This type of design thinking is used to maximize one metric–user engagement or time spent on screens–and it’s for the benefit of the company, not the user.  

While the carrot-and-stick approach motivates behavior extrinsically, it doesn’t motivate behavior from within. Lasting motivation, it has been found, comes from a much deeper place inside. 

Theories of motivation have evolved quite a bit since Skinner and now center on intrinsic motivation, agency, and personal choice. Abraham Maslow was among the first to suggest that people were motivated by higher needs, like growth and self-actualization, once their basic needs, like food and shelter, were met. Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed this humanistic-based thinking into positive psychology and soon turned into concrete, evidence-based ways to help people shift from feeling disengaged to feeling highly energized, inspired, and alive. 

Still, many tech organizations have not embraced this evolution in thinking. While their profits may be increasing, the wellbeing of their users is on a decline

Time for a change

According to the science of positive psychology and related fields, people need to feel psychologically safe and secure, experience autonomy, freedom, and a sense of control; they need to develop close relationships with others, feel like they belong, and feel seen and valued; they need to be aware of their unique strengths and leverage those strengths in all areas of life; they need to continually grow and develop, set intrinsically motivated goals, and make progress on meaningful work; they need to feel their life has purpose and that they contribute to something greater than the self.

Companies can leverage this science to create technology that not only protects human vulnerabilities but also helps people realize their full potential. 

Imagine a world where social apps genuinely strengthened relationships and dating apps actually helped you meet the right person and stay with them. Imagine a world where workplace software truly unlocked psychological safety and purpose and transformed managers into positive, conscious leaders. Imagine a world where education platforms helped children cultivate self-awareness, resilience, and a personal growth mindset, foundational life skills for long-term success. 

Positive Product Design can be used to uplevel technology across multiple domains, including workplace software, education software, social platforms, and technology developed to improve health and wellbeing. Positive, science-backed design is a valuable asset for all technology producers, but especially valuable for startups that have an opportunity to build well early on.

Positive Product Design at 15Five

15Five is unlocking the potential of the global workforce through technology aligned to the science of thriving using Positive Product Design. Features in My Profile were developed to unlock psychological safety at scale through role clarity and high-quality relationships. Our guided Check-in feature works to transform managers into positive leaders. High Five’s help counter the negativity bias (our natural tendency to focus on bad over good) and increase positivity in organizations by helping employees practice gratitude and celebrate wins. Self-Development Objectives (learning goals) accompany traditional performance goals like OKRs and promote a learning orientation, the key to a personal growth mindset. 15Five’s Request Feedback feature was developed to help people learn non-violent communication through real-time in-app education. 

Just two decades ago technology and positive psychology were in their infancy. Today both have matured in innovative capability and scientific rigor, making now the perfect time for Silicon Valley and positive psychology to join hands for the most leveraged form of positive impact.  

We use Positive Product Design, a method that aligns technology to the science of thriving, to unlock the potential of every member of the global workforce. Now we want to empower other tech companies to do the same.

For those interested in learning more about Positive Product Design, go to positiveproductdesign.com

Courtney Bigony

Courtney Bigony is the Director of People Science at 15Five, industry leading continuous performance management software, where she created Positive Product Design™ which aligns the product to the latest science of thriving. Courtney has a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, is the founder of The Deep Feedback Movement, and a Fellow at the Center for Evidence Based Management. She was named a 2019 Workforce Game Changer by Workforce Magazine, and has contributed pieces featured in Forbes and Huffington Post. Follow her on twitter @CourtneyBigony.

Photo by Doran Erickson on Unsplash


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