Not too long ago, a user participating in one of our field studies described spending his work days keeping up with shifting information in an effort to avoid “being run over by the bus.”

At their most extreme, his tactics landed him at the office printer playing the part of inter-office spy, “borrowing” other employee’s documents to learn critical information.

Although he had plenty of software applications and processes at his disposal, his work was suffering and he was taking desperate measures.

If most of our users’ time at work is spent using applications designed to help them work more efficiently, why do they still report feeling overwhelmed, frustrated, and under-valued?

People want to feel like their actions contribute to something larger than themselves. Having meaningful work gives people a sense of purpose, engagement, and energy. As designers, we can help create a greater sense of meaning in the work lives of our users by understanding the role psychology plays in workplace happiness, and designing apps and software that are meaningful to users.

Searching for Meaning

The search for meaning and purpose is a universal part of the human experience. Martin Seligman, who established the field of positive psychology, lists meaning as one of the five key elements of a good life. The sense of well being derived from belonging to something larger and more permanent than oneself gives meaning to life.

Create spaces for colleagues to express thanks, gratitude, or just joke around.

Fields like organizational and positive psychology explore which environments are more conductive to this experience than others. “With a focus on psychology, UX designers can build services that directly help people improve their lives,” Loren Baxter notes in "Why Persuasive Design Should Be Your Next Skill Set." By exploring some psychological principles that explain what creates meaning in work, we can become better designers and create better products.

The Business Case for Emotional Design

As a part of a field study on collaborative work, my team talked to a lot of people about their work lives: the executive assistant defying his boss to better serve customers, the project managers swimming in a sea of emails and missed calls, and the freelancers trying hard to make a personal connection with long-distance clients. By asking them about the tools they used to get their work done, we discovered that the software they had available to them to do their jobs was often largely ignored because it didn’t address their unmet needs. By tapping into these unmet needs in work, we are uncovering opportunities to imbue meaning by developing applications that are more sticky—that users delight in and stay with over time.

A Framework for Understanding Behavior

To design products or services that contribute a sense of meaning to work, we need to understand the psychology underlying human experience. Leveraging the right emotional triggers is important to changing or shaping behavior; that is, to activating purpose, engagement and energy. There is a vast amount of psychology research available that is of interest to designers, but I’ve outlined several concepts from psychology research to get you started in designing for meaning or exploring the research further.

  • Positivity: People who are more positive are more creative. They are better problem-solvers and work harder, and they influence their colleagues to do the same.
  • Self-efficacy: The concepts of self-efficacy and “locus of control” predict the extent to which a person views himself or herself as good at things, and whether they feel like their actions have an effect on the world. Positive self-evaluations in these areas have been shown to impact how persistent people are at solving difficult problems, and how successful they are when faced with challenging circumstances.
  • Losada line: The ratio of positive to negative interactions must exceed 2.9 for high-performing creative teams. For every one negative interaction, there must be at least three (and optimally six) positive interactions for teams to produce their very best work.
  • Priming: An effect of memory where exposure to a certain stimulus impacts response to a later stimulus. In other words, people in positive surroundings notice more positive events and opportunities later.
  • Intrinsic motivation. Individuals experience intrinsic motivation when they do work for the pleasure or interest in the task itself (like games), rather than in anticipation of an external reward (like money). Intrinsic motivation should be emphasized at work because it is more persistent than external motivators.
  • Nourishment: Described by Teresa Amible in The Progress Principle, the nourishment factor is the extent to which colleagues offer respect, encouragement, emotional support, and affirmation. People that positively contribute to these categories infuse the work of their teams with greater meaning.

Not sure where to start? Here are a few design principles that can be used to guide explorations in this area:

Prime for Positivity and Progress

A focus on the positive aspects of work increases the likelihood of a successful outcome. Activate a priming response by thinking carefully about an application’s hierarchy and structure. Emphasize the positive aspects of work: progress, successes, affiliation, and learning.

For example, Basecamp includes a daily progress tracker that shows the work done that day by the entire team, tapping into a sense of self-efficacy and highlighting the collective efforts of everybody involved.

Enable Learning and Growth

As users interact with our applications, they leave behind a trail of activities. Use this data to support their overall progress as a worker. Track and show improvements in work, like metrics on how often they successfully meet deadlines. This activates a feeling of improvement over time, triggering self-efficacy and resulting in positive beliefs about the future. RescueTime is an application that shows its users their most and least productive days, based on how they’ve spent their time.


Organize Around Goals

Encourage users to structure tasks under goals to highlight the purpose of their work. Tap into the user’s self-efficacy by showing how their work leads to steady, daily progress toward overall goals. Increase the visibility of the larger goals of the individual and their team. While there are many applications that help users track their tasks, few focus on the goals behind those tasks. More than a simple task manager, the Everest iOS app is a to-do list of personal goals that helps break them down into manageable steps and deadlines.

Reduce Decisions About Work

Help users automate some decisions about what to work on next by using goals as heuristics for dealing with work. Create spaces of autonomy and focus within larger projects by removing distractions. Users will have more accomplishments in their day and their feelings of self-efficacy will be activated. By removing all surrounding UI, the focus mode in IA Writer is a great example of being responsive to context and helping the user focus.

The Team is in it Together

Being part of a team creates a sense of bigger purpose. Craft an experience that places an emphasis on the individual’s work within a larger team, and use priming to highlight positive interactions in the team. Create spaces for colleagues to express thanks, gratitude, or just joke around. Further tap into feelings of affiliation by helping them build their network of colleagues. Do encourages teamwork by suggesting users add team members to their tasks to help get them done faster.

What’s Next?

Depending on your project, you may find these principles useful or come up with your own. Exploring the psychology behind work experience allows us to create experiences that are useful, useable, delightful, and meaningful. After all, happy people work better.


Image of happy coworkers courtesy Shutterstock