ON THE PRODUCTS AND EXPERIENCES THAT MAKE US
Yang, Xi; Aurisicchio, Marco; Mackrill, James; Baxter, Weston
Imperial College London, United Kingdom
The study of happiness is receiving increasing attention both in positive psychology and design. A key
issue in current literature is the lack of empirical evidence linking products and happiness. We address
this examining 87 reports of product-mediated happy experiences and analysing their relations to well-
being. Six types of products with experiential attributes were reported to contribute more systematically
to happiness. Digital devices and food are the two dominant products followed by vehicles, books,
clothing & accessories and sport equipment. These products make us happy by creating: hedonic
experiences in which we relieve stress, get rest and increase joy; and eudaimonic experiences in which
we establish positive social relationships, develop self-identity, achieve personal growth and gain
competence and autonomy. In such experiences, products acted as carriers of reflective meanings, and
enablers of experiencing. These insights provide an initial mapping of the relationship between products
and happiness and suggest approaches to designing products that can bring happy experiences.
Keywords: Happiness, Well-being, Experience design, User centred design, Human behaviour in design
Imperial College London
Dyson School of Design Engineering
21ST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON ENGINEERING DESIGN, ICED17
21-25 AUGUST 2017, THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA, VANCOUVER, CANADA
Please cite this paper as:
Surnames, Initials: Title of paper. In: Proceedings of the 21st International Conference on Engineering Design (ICED17),
Vol. 8: Human Behaviour in Design, Vancouver, Canada, 21.-25.08.2017.
It is increasingly evident that happy people are successful across many life domains such as marriage,
friendship, career and physical health (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). Sustaining or increasing happiness is
obviously one of the major goals in life. Since the start of positive psychology (Seligman and
Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), considerable progress has been made in understanding the dynamics of
happiness and evidencing ways of achieving it.
In psychology, happiness has been defined as the “experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-
being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile” (Lyubomirsky, 2007,
p.32). About half of a person's happiness is attributed to genetics. Of the remaining 50%, it has been
shown that only 10% of happiness is determined by factors such as money or living conditions, whereas,
40% is determined by how we think and act in everyday lives (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005). In other words,
the pursuit of happiness is to achieve more positive experiences in life. As everyday experiences are
inevitably shaped by products, it is impossible to neglect the influence that they have on our lives and
the value that they bring to our well-being.
Despite the incredible proliferation of products, little is known in terms of their influence on happiness
(Calvo and Peters, 2012; Helliwell et al., 2015). One reason for this is that happiness has not yet been
adequately considered in the design cycle of products and technology. This may be due to the historical
tendency of designers to stay clear of psychological aspects of the human being or to the insufficient
support for designing happy products. Regardless of the reason, there is scope to further explore the
opportunities and approaches to designing products that can bring happy experiences.
The emergence of positive design (Desmet and Pohlmeyer, 2013) has started to bring light to how
happiness and well-being can be improved through the design of everyday things. For example, new
frameworks (Desmet and Pohlmeyer, 2013; Hassenzahl, 2010) and approaches (Desmet and
Hassenzahl, 2012; Hassenzahl et al., 2013) have been introduced to guide the design of pleasurable and
meaningful experiences. However, it is still unclear if products can have long lasting effects on
happiness, and empirical evidence regarding the impact of design is lacking (Pohlmeyer, 2013).
Gathering such evidence is important, as studies investigating the relationships between material goods
and well-being often tend to focus on the material value of products, overlooking the psychological
benefits potentially brought by products (Desmet and Pohlmeyer, 2013). It is, therefore, important to
conduct further research to understand the contribution of products to the everyday lives and well-being
This paper presents an empirical study to investigate: the products that contribute to happiness, the
experiences created by these products, and the roles that products play in creating happy experiences.
In this paper, the term happiness is defined as reported above and it is used interchangeably with well-
2.1 Achieving Happiness from Experiences
Happiness as defined by Lyubomirsky (2007) includes both an hedonic component, which arises from
the expereince of pleasure, and an eudaimonic component, which arises from self-actualisation and the
fulfiment of human potential (Desmet and Hassenzahl, 2012; Ryan and Deci, 2001). Achieving hedonic
happiness means receiving a balanced amount of pleasure and an overall satisfaction of life, as described
in subjective well-being theories (Diener, 2000). Whereas achieving eudaimonic happiness means
engaging in self-development, pursuing life goals, establishing positive relationships and actualising
human potentials, as described in eudaimonic well-being theories (Deci and Ryan, 2000; Ryff and
Keyes, 1995; Sheldon et al., 2001).
Experience, having the potential to yield great expression of the true self, is valuable in providing
enduring happiness (Carter and Gilovich, 2010, 2012; Van Boven and Gilovich, 2003). Hassenzahl
(2010) has interpreted experience as “a story, emerging from the dialogue of a person with her or his
world through action” (p. 8). When involved in an experience, people often engage themselves in a
meaning-making process (Baumeister and Newman, 1994). That is to say if such process yields positive
meanings such as achievement or self-esteem, happiness is more likely to be achieved through this
experience. Experience, as it develops over time, can be characterised as experience or experiencing.
Experience refers to practical contacts and observations that we gathered in the past and it has a
beginning and an end that may be named, while experiencing refers to the constant stream of ‘self-talk’
happening during the user-product interaction (Forlizzi and Battarbee, 2004; McCarthy and Wright,
2004). This distinction is important as the experience—or better the accumulation of experiences—often
affects subsequent experiencing (Ortíz Nicolás and Aurisicchio, 2011). In the context of achieving
happy experiences, it is thus important to distinguish what triggers happiness, be it the reflections from
past experiences or activities involved in experiencing.
2.2 Designing Happiness Through Products
In design research, attention has been given to the hedonic component of happiness, i.e. the emotional
aspects of happy experiences with products (Diefenbach et al., 2014; Mekler and Hornbæk, 2016).
Demirbilek and Sener (2003), for example, have shown that product attributes conveying “fun” and
“cuteness” can help convey a sense of happiness. Happiness is also often considered as one of the
positive emotions (Desmet, 2012; Ortíz Nicolás et al., 2013). For example, Norman (2005) points out
that emotions such as love and happiness are “critical to learning, curiosity and creative thought” and
that “being happy broadens the thought processes and facilitates creative thinking”. Clearly, positive
emotions have great potential to improve well-being. However, positive emotions alone are not fully
descriptive of happiness (Calvo and Peters, 2012), as they are often momentary forms of pleasure. It is
when they co-occur with eudaimonic factors such as personal growth and meaning that they can trigger
a greater expression of happiness and long-lasting flourishing.
Over recent years, the field of design has started to adopt a holistic understanding of happiness,
emphasising the importance of considering both hedonic and eudaimonic aspects. Noticeable progress
has been made in the development of things that can contribute to both a pleasurable and meaningful
life. In his book Experience Design, Hassenzahl (2010) posits that the core of designing pleasurable and
meaningful experiences is to put the resulting experiences in the fore, i.e. defining human needs and
personal meanings before considering functional requirements. Possibility-driven design is an approach
suggesting how to design such experiences (Desmet and Hassenzahl, 2012). Differently from the
traditional problem-driven approach which typically starts with a problem to solve, possibility-driven
design starts with exploring experiences with great potential to boost happiness and human flourishing.
This approach has opened new opportunities and challenges to design for happiness. The positive design
framework (Desmet and Pohlmeyer, 2013) further explores how design can contribute to well-being
stating three positive design ingredients, i.e. design for pleasure, personal significance and virtue.
Products are an essential part of experience and their value has been extensively studied. In general
terms, products shape human experience through the reflective meanings that they carry and the
functions that they perform (Arhippainen and Tähti, 2003; Desmet and Hekkert, 2007; Hekkert and
Schifferstein, 2008; Mahlke and Thüring, 2007; Ortíz Nicolás and Aurisicchio, 2011). In the context of
design for happiness, Pohlmeyer (2012) has proposed four roles that a product may have in achieving
well-being, i.e. source of pleasure or meaning, symbol of pleasure or meaning, enabler of happiness-
enhancing activities, and promoter of behaviour change and positive thinking.
2.3 Research Gap
Despite growing research on happiness and design, there is still a lack of literature examining the
influence of products on everyday experiences and well-being. Research is needed to explain what
products make people happy, and understand the experiences resulting from such products, including
the personal meaning that is relevant to well-being and the contextual factors of these experiences. To
develop deeper understanding of the influence of products on happiness, their roles in shaping happy
experiences also need to be further explored.
A questionnaire study was designed to conduct an in-depth investigation of happy products and their
3.1 Data Collection
3.1.1 Participants and Procedure
The study was carried out online using the CrowdFlower platform (https://www.crowdflower.com/). A
total of 100 participants (64 male, 36 female) completed the study. They were from 29 different countries
(18 from Europe, 6 from the Americas, 4 from Asia and 1 from Africa). The average age was 34.5 years
old (SD = 10.3). The educational level of participants was distributed as follows: high school (18%),
graduate (59%) and post-graduate (23%). Participants were guided through a three-part questionnaire.
First, they were given the introduction and consent form. If participants agreed to continue, they were
asked to answer questions regarding happy products and happy experiences. Lastly, participants were
asked to provide their demographic data, i.e. gender, age, nationality and education status.
3.1.2 Questionnaire Design
To collect data about happy products and happy experiences, we adopted the critical incident method,
as it has been successfully used to observe characteristics of user experience (Hassenzahl et al., 2010,
2015; Mekler and Hornbæk, 2016; Müller et al., 2015; Partala and Kallinen, 2012; Tuch et al., 2013).
In the questionnaire, participants were asked about: 1) their general view on happiness ("What does
happiness mean to you”); 2) a product that typically brings happiness to them ("What is your happy
product”); and 3) a happy experience (“What experience have you had with your happy product”). All
three questions were open-ended. The first question was asked to set the context and let participants
reflect on what happiness truly means to them thereby allowing this reflection to inform their subsequent
answers. Responses to all questions were collected and analysed. We excluded responses which were
blank and those which did not provide sufficient information, leaving 87 valid responses.
3.2 Data Analysis
Analysis involved two steps. First, we identified and categorised the types of products that participants
reported to bring them happiness. Second, we derived themes of happy experiences following the
thematic analysis process by Braun and Clarke (2006).
3.2.1 Categorising Happy Products
The process of categorising happy products was iterative. In the first iteration, an initial set of nine
categories was derived. The development of the initial category left two responses not categorised,
namely social media and WhatsApp. These responses were then reanalysed and categorised in the
closest category, i.e. the mobile phones category. This is because social media and WhatsApp are often
installed as mobile applications and share similar communication functions. In the second iteration, the
data were aggregated to improve the distinctiveness of the categories. In particular, computers, mobile
phones, video games and TV were classified as subcategories of a new digital devices category. This
was driven by the fact that the functionality of these devices often overlaps. For example, a computer
can be a hybrid of mobile phones, TV and game console. Eventually, six categories of products which
people reported to bring happiness to them were derived.
3.2.2 Thematic Analysis of Experiences
Following the classification of happy products, a thematic analysis of the reported experiences was
conducted. The analysis involved two researchers. Researcher 1 performed the main analysis guided by
the six phases described in (Braun and Clarke, 2006), while researcher 2 was invited to evaluate the
identified themes to ensure that they were clear. In the early phases, researcher 1 analysed the data and
coded each experience report in terms of the personal meaning that was important to the user’s happiness
and well-being (e.g. connecting to friends and family, self-development). As a result of this coding work
a set of initial themes emerged. Reanalysing the themes, it was found that differences existed between
items within the same theme. Therefore, new themes were added, and a set of seven themes was
established including ‘relaxing’, ‘entertaining’, ‘connecting to loved ones’, ‘developing self-image’,
‘mastering the activity’, ‘learning new knowledge’ and ‘doing things freely’. Researcher 2 was then
invited to evaluate the identified themes. He was given a random list of 60 reports and asked to either
map the reports to existing themes or suggest new themes. The reviewing process showed some conflicts
between researcher 1 and researcher 2. For example, the ‘relaxing’ theme was not distinctive enough
from the ‘entertaining’ theme. To respond to this conflict, the ‘relaxing’ theme was redefined and named
as ‘comfort’. After resolving the conflicts, we further defined each theme and paid attention to the
naming of the seven themes. Since the analysis was data-driven, the names of the themes were informed
by the terminology used by the participants as much as possible. When no suitable names could be
found, we borrowed terms from psychological theories. For each theme, we identified the personal
meaning relevant to happiness (e.g. connecting with family, entertainment), mapped the participants'
activities onto productive, maintenance and leisure activities as proposed in (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997;
Csikszentmihalyi and Graef, 1980; Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Larson et al., 1994), identified
the contextual factors including personal context (the state of the user), social context (social aspects),
task context (tasks, actions or activities that the user is engaged in), and/or device context (characteristics
and conditions of the product) (Korhonen et al., 2010), and examined the dimensions of experience (an
experience or experiencing) (Ortíz Nicolás and Aurisicchio, 2011) and the roles of products within the
This section presents the types of products and experiences that make people happy, along with details
of why and how they contribute to happiness.
4.1 Products That Make People Happy
Six categories of happy products were derived (Figure 1). Digital devices were found to be associated
with productive activities such as working or studying and leisure activities such as socialising,
consuming media or pursuing hobbies. Food, vehicles and clothing & accessories were often involved
in maintenance activities such as eating, driving or dressing. Books and sport equipment usually
appeared in leisure activities such as consuming media and pursuing hobbies.
Figure 1. Products that make people happy
4.2 Products Bring Happiness Via Experiences
From the analysis of self-reported happy experiences, seven themes of experience were identified.
Happy products have shown to be closely associated with multiple themes, and they play different roles
in creating or facilitating such experiences. In this section, we first present details of the seven themes
of experiences, then the routes from products to happy experiences, and lastly the roles of products in
4.2.1 Themes of Happy Experiences
Table 1 summarises the identified themes of happy experiences. For each theme we present: a
representative quote from participants; the personal meaning central to the user experience; the types of
activities involved; and the relevant contextual factors. The first two themes were found to be more
closely related to hedonic happiness, while the remaining five to eudaimonic happiness. Importantly
themes can co-exist in a happy experience.
Table 1. Themes of happy experiences
4.2.2 Routes from Products to Happy Experiences and Vice Versa
Our results have shown various routes from products to different themes of experiences and vice versa
(see Figure 2). The thickness of the grey lines depicts the frequency of route occurrence. The height of
the bar represents the frequency of product and experience occurrence. For example, digital devices take
49% of all reported products and the theme ‘connecting to loved ones’ appeared more frequently than
all other themes.
The results show that each happy product can create or facilitate multiple themes of experiences. As
shown in Figure 2, digital devices have routes to all themes of experiences. Vehicles come after digital
devices with routes to five themes. The other types of happy products have routes to at least two or three
themes of experiences. The routes from food to happy experiences are now considered as an example.
Food can create a connecting experience to loved ones, e.g. “When my whole family and I go to a
restaurant that serves my favourite food” (P26). It can also create a comfort experience, e.g. “During
the summer when I am in town, I buy an ice-cream to [refresh], and I am happy” (P57). The routes from
vehicles to happy experiences are also considered. For example, a vehicle can create a connecting
experience by providing a place where a family undertakes activities together. It may also induce
feelings of autonomy in the driver. Additionally, it can entertain someone who drives for enjoyment.
Furthermore, each happy experience can be achieved through multiple products. As shown in Figure 2,
the theme ‘connecting to loved ones’ was found to be associated with all product types, whereas the
other themes with two to four types of products only. For example, the theme ‘connecting to loved ones’
can be achieved through food, e.g. “Pizza has a taste that leaves us excited, makes us happy, and joins
the family for unforgettable moments” (P22), and digital devices, e.g. “Whenever I got text from
someone special it made me happy and connected to that special person” (P68), as well as other types
of happy products.
Figure 2. Routes from products to happy experiences and vice versa
4.2.3 Roles of Products in Experiences
This section presents results about how products shape happy experiences. Products were found to create
or facilitate happy experiences as: 1) carriers of past meaningful experiences; and 2) enablers of
experiencing present interactions or events.
In Figure 3 (a), the solid line illustrates the former case in which: something meaningful happened in
the past; a product becomes associated with the story; and the product brings happiness to future
interactions because of the meaning it carries, e.g. “Because of a hot chocolate I met my husband. I
associated it with love since then” (P8). Additionally, in Figure 3 (a) the dotted line illustrates the latter
case in which a product contributes to happiness by enabling a current experience, e.g. “I talked to a
long-lost childhood friend using Skype on my laptop. It was a truly happy experience” (P71). Figure 3
(b) shows examples of how these two roles were played by each product type.
Figure 3. How products create happy experiences
Happy products: products that bring happiness
Six types of products were found to lead to happy experiences, namely digital devices, food, vehicles,
clothing & accessories, books and sport equipment. Among these, digital devices, vehicles, books and
sporting goods are types of experiential products (Guevarra and Howell, 2015). This is a class of
possessions in between material items and life experiences that is purchased ‘to have in order to do’
(Guevarra and Howell, 2015). These products are designed to create and enhance experiences. For
example, digital devices such as laptop computers and mobile phones allow users to utilise and develop
new skills and knowledge, and connect to family and friends while offering rich multisensory and
interactive experiences. Similarly, vehicles such as cars allow drivers and their family to have pleasant
travel experiences. In general, digital devices are unveiled as social and developmental material
possessions that play a significant role in product-mediated happy experiences due to their hybrid
functionality and ubiquitous features. This result reinforces the impact of technology on well-being
(Calvo and Peters, 2012) and makes us ponder how technology can enhance traditional experiences.
Although food and clothing & accessories have been traditionally perceived as material possessions
serving utilitarian purposes (Guevarra and Howell, 2015), our results challenge this perspective
indicating that these items can also be seen as experiential products. For example, clothing items such
as a boutique dress and vintage shoes are goods which were found to support the need for identity
Happy experiences: themes of user experiences that make people happy
The themes of happy experiences identified in this research have shown consistency with psychological
happiness theories. They make people happier by evoking positive emotions (Deci and Ryan, 2012;
Lyubomirsky and Layous, 2013) and help people be successful in aspects such as positive relations with
others, environmental mastery, personal growth, purpose in life, self-acceptance and autonomy (Ryan
and Deci, 2000; Ryff and Keyes, 1995). Broadly speaking, ‘comfort’ and ‘entertaining’ are closely
related to eliciting positive emotions, ‘connecting to loved ones’ to positive relationships, ‘mastering
the activity’ to environmental mastery, ‘developing self-image’ to self-acceptance, ‘learning new
knowledge’ to purpose in life, and ‘doing things freely’ to autonomy. Although each theme of
experience focuses on one aspect only, it may also include others. For example, ‘connecting to loved
ones’ can lead to positive emotions, and ‘learning new knowledge’ can contribute to environmental
mastery. Furthermore, the themes of experience align well also with the psychological needs identified
by Sheldon et al. (2001). For example, ‘comfort and ‘entertaining’ fulfil the need for pleasure-
stimulation, ‘connecting to loved ones’ for relatedness, ‘developing self-image’ for self-esteem,
‘mastering the activity’ and ‘learning new knowledge’ for competence, and ‘doing freely’ for autonomy.
Our data also confirm the conclusion by Sheldon et al. (2001) that relatedness and competence are
among the most salient needs in a satisfying event, but it also suggests that pleasure-stimulation has
significant importance in product-mediated happy experiences.
Design insights: designing products to facilitate happy experiences
Each of the products identified in this research can create or facilitate multiple themes of experiences.
This result offers two insights to design for well-being. First, we need to investigate the routes between
products and experiences with the aim to maximise products’ positive impact. Second, we need to
explore new routes with the aim to create new possibilities of designing happiness. The results also
indicate that each happy experience can be achieved through different products. This result is valuable
as it gives designers the flexibility to choose alternative design directions depending on end-users’
preferences and requirements. However, it is noteworthy that this is relevant to designing experiences
rather than specific products as experience design offers the opportunity to specify and integrate multiple
experiential products. For example, in the design of a restaurant eating experience it can be imagined
that along with food, digital devices can also be used as design elements to satisfy psychological needs
for relatedness and entertainment. Finally, the results suggest that to understand how to create happy
experiences it is important to enable meaning-making through design by learning from past and present
The main limitation of this research is related to the data collection method. The quality of the data
collected with the critical incident method is highly dependent on participants’ willingness to write a
complete story, which is often difficult to guarantee. Despite this, the critical incident method is believed
to be the most suitable one for the current stage of research, as it helped collect rich user experiences
and gave users flexibility to report from their own perspectives and using their own words.
This paper has presented an empirical study to classify happy products, and investigate the resulting
experiences. We found evidence that six types of products with experiential value create or facilitate
happy experiences. Although happiness is subjective and can be achieved in different ways, we
identified seven themes of happy experiences. These experiences explain how products make people
happier and psychologically healthier. This result provides not only guidelines for making design
decisions, but also inspirations for creating possibilities to enhance everyday lives. Moreover, we found
that products play two major roles in happy experiences: carriers of meanings from past memorable
experiences; and enablers of present experiences. This study expands our understanding of everyday
product-mediated experiences that make us happy. The results of this research support further
exploration of happy products to develop further understanding of their positive impact on people’s
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The authors would like to thank Imperial College London for supporting this research through the
President’s PhD Scholarships scheme.