Design, at its heart, is about solving problems. That’s why it’s so easy to talk to designers. They can explain exactly how their interface is built to help you navigate through your phone, or how a device was shaped to make it possible for mass manufacturing on the assembly line.
But over the course of hundreds of conversations with designers, I’ve begun to wonder: If most people's goal is to live a happy life, why did I never hear designers explain how they’d built something to make me happy?
At SXSW, I moderated an event called Designing Happiness. Its experts included Bruce Vaughn, former chief creative exec with Disney Imagineering; Gabby Etrog Cohen, senior vice president of PR and brand strategy at SoulCycle; and Randall Stone, director of experience innovation at Lippincott. All three brands strive to create happy experiences, not as an afterthought, but as the first step in what they do. It is an approach that’s paid huge dividends for each company. Here’s what they taught me:
"Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so," said the philosopher John Stuart Mill. It’s a paradox at the heart of happiness. We are hardwired to enjoy the anticipation of a joyous event, and savor the memory. But in that actual moment of an experience? It can be hard to tell.
So at the creative consultancy Lippincott, designers have a theory called the Happiness Halo—and it’s built upon reconstructing happiness as a three-act structure of anticipation, experience, and memory.
"First it’s about creating anticipation," Stone explains. "That’s really strong—both from a psychological standpoint but also the anticipation of the experience is sometime greater [than experience]. It goes back to our primitive skills of releasing dopamine. It’s our hunting skills. If we didn’t have this sense of anticipation, we would have starved to death a long time ago."
Anticipation is so powerful that being excited about a big event, like running a marathon, can give you as much joy as actually completing it.
"The experience itself is really important," Stone continues, "but an experience is never perfect, and you don’t weigh an experience by adding it up over time. It’s not like you add four and five and get a score that equals happiness. You actually remember the high moment and the end moment, and the most important thing is the memory."
The end moment is particularly profound—and it’s something every good waiter already knows. One study found that waiters who gave mints at the end of the meal received 3% higher tips, while those who presented the mints with just a bit more effort, asking the question "would anyone like mints at the end of their meal?" received 14% higher tips. It shows that we’re biased to remember endings by nature (remember that when penning your next novel).
Anticipation reveals something else about happiness: That with all of the micro-stresses we experience in our daily lives, it actually helps us to prepare ourselves to be happy, to decompress, wipe our consciousness, and open ourselves to joy.
Disney and SoulCycle both craft experiences specifically to accommodate this transitional time. At Disney, they call it a "portal."
"Think about Disneyland where you literally go through a dark tunnel, kind of a mythic experience where you go through a compressed space and come out the other side," Vaughn says. "Architects use this a lot; Frank Lloyd Wright used this a lot in his houses. You’ve completely left the world you were in, and you’re in a very very different world. The sites, the sounds, the smells . . . suddenly you’re in this world where there are marching bands and the smell of fudge and horses and giant mice that are waving at you and people who are very friendly and people are hugging big bears, and it’s just fine . . . and without that transition, without stepping through a portal, you lose that opportunity to reset the state of mind of guests."
Likewise, every SoulCycle location has been built to accommodate what the company calls the "crossover." "We purposefully design our spaces so that when you are leaving your class, another class is coming in," Cohen says. The "crossover" isn’t anything fancy. One cyclist friend describes it as a "hallway lined with lockers." But that hallway is an important two-way street, designed for the people coming in to cross paths with the people coming out. For the sweatless, it’s a taste of things to come. For the exercised, it’s an audience to provide validation—the cherry on top of their hard work. And for both sides, it can create a longer-lead experience to the next SoulCycle class.
"There are these interactions where you’re rubbing up against people, to purposefully create community," Cohen says. "It’s all about creating relationships with people so that you’re not just walking out anonymously to your next venture in life."
If any experience is anti-happy, it’s bureaucracy. (Just consider how a trip to the DMV is more or less the least happy experience on earth.) And so it should come as little surprise that companies that know how to make customers happy enable their employees to make customers happy.
For instance, take the haute N.Y.C. dining establishment Eleven Madison Park. Not only does it serve some of the most beautifully plated, scrumptiously paired flavors in the world, it employs a staff member called the Dreamweaver. The Dreamweaver is like a concierge for experience. As Stone tells the story, on one occasion, visitors from out of town expressed that their only regret was not having a slice of N.Y.C. pizza. And so the Dreamweaver responded.
"[The Dreamweaver] jumped in a cab—and here you’re getting a very expensive, multicourse meal—and one of the courses was an authentic slice of New York pizza so they could have everything on their list checked off," Stone says. "So, if you talk to [Eleven Madison Park], they say, yes, we use food to deliver an experience, but we want you to leave with a memory of being here—not necessarily the dish or the course. It’s about making it a memorable night."
The Dreamweaver is an empowered decision-maker, focused on customer experience, just like Disney’s "cast members," who are allowed to intervene and cheer up someone having a bad day at the park. A cast member is trained from day one so that if she sees a problem, she can take care of it. She can replace a child’s spilled popcorn or ice cream, no middle management questions asked. But there's also a highly organized system of communication that allows cast members to pull off greater feats, too. (Have you ever read the tear-jerking story of Toby the Bear?)
It’s why cast members—not the million dollar attractions—are Disney’s highest-rated touchpoint at its parks.
These happiness interventions, staged by employees, are the perfect opportunity to inject an important element into happy experiences: surprise. Much like beginnings and endings, we’re cognitively predisposed to remember surprises, too. And when you have employees primed to surprise customers, it’s far easier to pull off the feat.
"At SoulCycle, we have a program that’s actually called 'surprise and delight' where everyone of our managers and key holders has a budget to be able to surprise and delight our riders—whoever they want," Cohen says. "And that’s at any level. Whether that’s putting a gift in their locker, taking them out to coffee, putting a cupcake on their bike for their birthday, or if a kid just went off to college, and they send them a T-shirt . . . it can be any number of things, because relationships matter."
Surprise is a tool that’s actually more effective at dealing with angry customers than catharsis. Complaining verbally actually makes people more upset by reinforcing their negative sentiments. But empowering an employee gives the company a chance to recover—to leave a surprisingly positive signpost in customers' memories of an evening.
And truth be told, it's also not that hard to surprise people, if you put just a little bit of thought into it.
"It’s about making the mundane memorable," Stone says. "You can take the most mundane moment of any experience interaction or process and bring it to life." His example is when checking into the Park Hyatt of Chicago, you’re offered a series of five or so pens. They’re not just Bics. Instead, they might be brass or tortoiseshell or any sort of pen you’d see used by a pen lover.
"They put the box in front of you and for that moment, you sit there and ponder, which pen is the most beautiful? Which reflects my personality?" Stone says. "You ask the person checking in next to you, ‘Which pen are you going to pick?’ And suddenly the most mundane moment becomes one of delight because you’re signing the Magna Carta with this pen. It’s no longer a plastic pen; it’s a ceremony."
According to Disney's Vaughn, happiness is real "lizard brain" stuff that’s mostly satisfying the concerns of our core instincts. That is why, fundamentally, Walt Disney’s philosophy was that a key to happiness was feeling safe, and his parks were designed to make you feel safe.
At one level, the parks themselves are designed at a human scale. The streets aren’t built for cars, but spaced for pedestrians. And despite their liberal use of concrete, Disney parks are teeming with organic materials.
"In our theme parks, there’s a lot of what we call the ‘living show’—actual live plants, living plants, a lot of water, all these things work on the subconscious level to give reassurance," Vaughn says. "Great cities have this as well. In the city of Paris there’s a lot of food, a lot of bistros and things. People are very reassured by food."
We crave the resources of nature, and having them on hand makes us happy. Of course, if you subscribe to this philosophy, the world can look pretty silly! Your favorite water feature is no longer about the sculpture or the art, but a means to tell your basest instincts, "It’s okay, there’s water nearby to drink."
But as I mentioned earlier, endings are important. At Disney, they call it a "kiss goodnight," the perfectly timed element that can turn even a mediocre experience into a fantastic memory.
In Orlando, this could be the spectacular fireworks show. At SoulCycle, it would be the last uplifting track played by the DJ, or the aforementioned "crossover," where you smile on your way out, feeling accomplished, among other riders about to go in. Even Lyft and Uber have a sort of kiss goodnight, Stone argues. In removing the cash transaction at the end of a traditional cab ride, you can share the briefest of human moments with your driver: a real "thank-you."
At SXSW, keeping in mind the importance of the power of surprise and the kiss goodnight, while recognizing that nature has the power to give us happiness in a way nothing else can, we had an idea:
"Look at the puppy—if anyone doesn’t feel like the puppy is the embodiment of happiness and joy, then you have no soul, so for me," Vaughn said. "I feel like nature has done it perfectly, and from there it gets hard."
So we went full-on Oprah, and we released puppies to the audience. (They were a Lab-Golden Retriever mix—totes adorbs.) Now look, I’m not going to claim it was a tsunami of puppies or anything. We only had 10 puppies for a room of 600 people. That’s a 60:1 person to puppy ratio! But the resulting happiness in the room was palpable. People climbed over one another to take photos like the paparazzi. They shared stories of their own pets back home while waiting for their turn for puppy snuggles. And of course, their faces melted when they actually held the pups. In case there was any skepticism that you can design, not just for solving problems, but for solving one of humanity’s biggest problems, I can attest, if you can make someone smile when walking out of an hour-long talk in a hotel ballroom? You can make someone smile just about anywhere.