Joy & Pain: Chasing the Bright Spots

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In design, innovation, and insights – teams are always chasing the elusive pain point. We spend our time hunting for the behaviors and nuances that indicate a problem that we might be able to solve and find ways that our ___ [Insert company, product, service, experience] can swoop in as the hero to fix the woes of users and capitalize on a business opportunity. “Pain point” is now so fundamental to innovation. Yet it has no counterpart, no positive that we can emulate or aspire to. What gives? Are we all just cynical and cranky?

The pursuit of the right problem to solve can become an obsession and even a futile task. In a recent planning meeting, a client was at a loss: “We’ve been trying to identify the problem to solve for the past 6 months and we just keep coming up empty.”

Conifer’s response: “What if there isn’t one? What if that’s ok?” They were overlooking the untapped opportunities to elevate the joy, delight, and ritual that surrounded their products.

While it can certainly be fun as researchers and innovators to think of ourselves as saviors, next time you look for your problems to solve consider this alternate path: unearth the joy and elevate on the positive. At Conifer, we often refer to these moments as bright spots.

Before I continue… let’s get some background music for your reading going with the help of Rob Base & DJ EZ Rock: Joy & Pain.

Pain Scale

Does the absence of pain mean joy? Not quite, according to this pain scale.

Is it because companies have bought into the hero product schtick? Is it just easier because problems tend to be concrete, where joy is ephemeral? Is joy just too darn squishy? Or do we just have a weird cultural fixation on productivity and measuring validation? (Thanks, Capitalism!) This same drive for efficacy and efficiency has created the problem-solution mindset that has become a mantra which has helped to identify areas of loss, ineffective workflows, and missed opportunities to grow revenue. Unearthing these problems has helped companies survive the economic conditions, solve major operational challenges, cut costs, adapt to new technology, and improve their bottom line. But in this, we became “fixers”—conditioned to feel most productive when we spotted something broken.

We became "fixers" - conditioned to feel most productive when we spotted something broken.

As the economy has improved, marketing and technology have evolved and the focus is shifting to experiences and interactions that feel good, provide a sense of momentum and progress and—the ultimate goal—promote loyalty. This might explain why you’ve heard more things like “how do we empower the user…” or “how can we increase their confidence…” Yet still these questions usually come packaged with a presumed problem or assumption: that users are disempowered, and lack confidence. We are heading in the right direction by leading with a positive outcome, but still have some work to do in heightening the joy. For example, the playful buzz, reassuring glow, personal “hello!” message, or the confetti show you get in the late afternoon when your FitBit celebrates your 10,000th step. These small gestures are a part of the growing understanding that even small subtle happiness cues can play a big role in providing an experience that users want to repeat again and again.

Bright spots hide in plain sight. 

If you were to ask a consumer what their favorite feature of their wearable device is, they may give any range of answers about their health goals, the aesthetics, ease of connectivity, or any number of responses provided in prescriptive boxes for them to choose. What you might miss? The true bright spots that captivate consumers, drive loyalty, word of mouth, and repeat use — these things are the holy grail, but they are often the hardest for users to articulate. When filling out a survey, users are likely to forget about the power of that fleeting moment we described above—the subtle gesture and smile upon reaching their goal—a symbol of the sense of joy and accomplishment of the micro-win. In order to unearth these moments, you have to go beyond the list of prioritized positive attributes from your survey and push beyond asking consumers to outright identify the joys and delights.

Behavioral and cognitive science dictates that they will more than likely provide reasons that are misleading—something we call Say-vs-Do Gaps. It requires research that explores consumers’ worlds and their interactions with products in context. Observation and ethnographic-based methods are the best at getting to the heart of these say-vs-do gaps. Using these research methods to zoom in on the levers of delight, you can uncover the specific cues and drivers of delight that provide a sense of progress and cultivate loyalty.

Some topics are harder than others. 

It’s easy to elevate delight in products and services that already play a role in joy: food, media, and entertainment come to mind. But for teams in other industries and verticals where things can get heavy (insurance, pharma, healthcare) it’s a different story. When a subject is tangled in complexity, bureaucracy, or involves true struggle and pain, embracing a sense of altruism is a team’s biggest challenge. Here empathy can be mistaken for sympathy. But even through the tough stuff—researching topics from terminal blood cancer to internal organizational turmoil—users tend to want and need a bright light. In these tough topics, moments of delight and joy may surprise you the most.

How do we apply this? How might we be more intentional about seeking out delights in our research interactions?

  • Give participants the space and permissions to play and reflect in order to surface areas of delight: People love to talk about what makes them happy. Building rapport and asking the right questions can set a tone of reflection that will surprise you. Sometimes even the simplest questions—“why” or “tell me more”—is all you need to open the doors.
  • Pivot back: Keep in mind that Once you enter the critical mindset of discussing “what’s not working” it’s hard to get unstuck. If the conversation veers, you can lean on one of my favorite lines from a fellow collaborator as a great reset: “Why isn’t it worse?”
  • Explore and follow up on say-vs-do gaps: Remember that what brings delight to users isn’t always obvious or easy to articulate. “Scientists didn’t realize this in the same way 10 or so years ago, that our intuitions about what will make us happy, like winning the lottery and getting a good grade — are totally wrong,”
    – Dr. Laurie Santos (New York Times: Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness)

How might we amplify delights and joy in the experiences, services, brands and products we work on?

  • Double check the design criteria you’re working with: Does it help you design for bright spots? Does the research, insights and inspiration you have highlight what motivates and delights consumers?
  • Translate lows to highs: Pivot the pain points, product failures, and frustrations uncovered in research into something positive. How can those pain points be depressurized and how might we amplify the levity within difficult interactions and decisions?
  • Elevate more of what is already good: Identify the most effective feedback mechanisms that provide positive assurance and sense of progress, or consider ways that joy, surprise and connection might be found in subtle interactions.

Next time you find yourself chasing after a problem to solve, stop and ask yourself: are you looking for the bright spots?

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