Positive Computing: The Next Big Thing In Human-Centered Design?


Giovanni Rodriguez, Contributor

January 26, 2015

It’s a Friday afternoon at the NASA Ames campus where I have been advising an organization that — among other things — is empowering a new generation of leaders to develop products for future social impact. For several weeks, I have been awaiting the arrival of two academics from the University of Sydney — Rafael Calvo and Dorian Peters — who have just published a book called Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing and Human Potential.  I invited them to meet with two of my colleagues, thinking that there’d be a meaningful connection. There was. And there will be others. If Calvo and Peters succeed in getting the word out — and I am betting they will — this new meta-category may become the nextbig thing in human-centered design.

Wellness At Scale

I’ve written here about the advent of positive technology, and the debt it owes to the emerging science of positive psychology.  As many of you know, positive psych — a movement that focuses at least as much on what make people well as what makes them ill — is a new focus for my consulting work.  I recently had the privilege of designing and testing a learning community to support The Science of Happiness, a massively open online course (MOOC) produced by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.  That experiment — now entering a new phase — has deepened my commitment to positive computing.  But when I was first becoming aware of the technology — in the form of apps designed to promote mental wellness — I was under the benign delusion that I was a lone chronicler of the field.  Soon after I published my first post on the topic, I discovered a LinkedIn group where my soon-to-become friends from down under were prominent.  I also discovered that Calvo and Peters were keeping a blog, which they were using to research bits and pieces for their book.  It was there I saw how broad the category — I did say meta-category — was being framed, and how the breadth of that frame had the potential of delivering positive psych at even greater scale.

Applications Specifically Designed for Wellness Calvo and Peters start by widening their lens on emerging applications.  There are at least two types.  First, there are applications — like the kind that first got my attention — that are specifically designed for wellness.  But as researchers steeped in both emerging tech systems and the literature of positive psychology (with big nods to leaders like Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the movement), they’re able to present a full range of applications across the spectrum of positive-tech interventions.  There are apps and systems — some experimental, others on the market — designed to enable people to be more reflective (Mood Gym, Drink Coach, Echo).  There are apps and systems designed to enable people to be more mindful (Smiling Mind, Sonic CradleBreath Walk).  There are apps and systems designed to enable people to be more empathetic, and more compassionate (my favorite:  Peace Maker, which flips the standard video wargame narrative on its head by rewarding players to resolve conflict).  Note that all these behaviors have been demonstrated — with varying degrees of proof — to promote mental wellness. The book goes even deeper with examples.  It may be the best catalog today on these new apps and systems (with the Calvo/Peters blog keeping the data fresh).

Design for All Future Applications

But, as I said, this is just one part of the meta-category.  The bigger agenda for positive computing — and the reason why the meeting on the NASA campus was meaningful — is that almost all systems can be designed to ensure that they promote wellness.  Think of it as perhaps the next wave of innovation in user experience.  The first wave was making systems more usable.  The next wave was making them stickier (some say, more addictive).  Neither of these approaches, of course, neccessarily designs for wellness, not even apps developed to promote temporal “happiness” (via the little doses of neurotransmitters that are triggered when game players engage in the “right behaviors”).  In the meantime, the positive psych movement urges all practitioners — including technologists – to consider a more thoughtful and holistic view of wellness. 

It’s a call to action that Calvo and Peters are delivering to a wider audience, not just the innovators working under the shadows of Hangar One. And they are delivering it at a time when technologists have a big opportunity to rethink their approach to design.  A new era of computing — wearable, integrated, ubiquitous — is fast approaching. Will it be good or bad for our wellness?  If you believe in human agency, then the call to action is real. There’s no time like today to plan for a future in which we can thrive, and not be the victims of our own design.

This article was written by Giovanni Rodriguez from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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