Good product design, at best, can help someone save money or time. It can also help someone complete a task more effectively or efficiently. At a minimum, good design can make someone feel good.
I know it may seem menial, but ask yourself, what does “feeling good” really mean? What really makes us happy? Well, for product thinkers — designers, technologists or entrepreneurs that want to create a meaningful product — it’s worth contemplating that question.
There’s no doubt that products can influence the way we think and behave. If product thinkers and creators can observe and understand the mechanics of positive experiences, then they’ll be able to recreate them. Right?
Well, at least that was my hypothesis. Would studying happiness make me a better product thinker? I wanted to find out.
What better way to learn about happiness (or, as psychologists call it, “subjective well-being”) than to be around happy people? I took some time off to visit the happiest country in the world: Denmark.
It became immediately clear that happiness is an essential part of Danish culture, so much so that the Danish even created a word — their own word — to describe the cultural phenomenon of creating the conditions for happiness.
Hygge (pronounced he-yoo-guh) is a reference to the sense of comfort and coziness that the Danes strive for on a daily basis. Hygge is anything from a fireside tea with a soft blanket after a long day of bearing the cold winter to a glass of wine and laughs with close friends. In other words, anything that gives you a sense of contentment.
Although Hygge varies from person to person, there is one thing that I noticed was consistent: candlelight.
My immersion into Hygge opened my eyes to the influence lighting has on the way we feel; research shows light exposure may be able to directly alter cognition and mood. It’s evident that candlelight plays into this to some extent.
It’s ironic — the happiest place in the world has very little sunlight most of the year, a large factor in physiologically improving mood. But the Danes remedy the dark days by distinctively using natural lighting in their interiors as much as possible, not just to be able to see clearly, but rather, to achieve Hygge.
According to Meik Wiking, author of The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living, about half of Danish people light candles at least four days a week and 31% light six or more candles each time.
Candlelight is a dim, natural light source that provides visibility at night without interrupting our natural circadian rhythm. Whereas brighter artificial light sources have been proven to make us more alert and reduces the production of melatonin, the natural sleep hormone.
Unlike electric light sources, candlelight allows your body to produce the chemicals that help you relax and fall asleep more easily, and reduces the production of chemicals that cause stress and anxiousness.
Rooms illuminated with candlelight created an ambiance that lifted my spirits or left me feeling relaxed. In Copenhagen, rarely did I enter a room that had excessive overhead lighting. When I did, it the spots and unwanted shadows became much more noticeable.
With modern interfaces are trending toward depth and dimensionality, shadows and faux light sources have become more relevant as decorative elements. Similar to interior design, product designers can use thoughtful and layered lighting as a means to create a sense of contentment, or what I’m calling the “Product Ambiance.”
The laws of physics are deeply integrated in our cognition, and it’s yet another tool that product designers can use. Shadows, depth, gradients and blur effects are a few of many ways to use natural light and material physics as decorative elements, the way candlelight does.
Bright screens generally have a negative effect on mood regulation.
If there’s anything product people can learn from the Danes’ obsession with candlelight, it’s that overall mental health can be improved when you consciously limit or reduce exposure to artificial light sources.
Over the last 3 years, Dark Mode (also known as “Night Mode”) has become really popular, with so many companies rolling out versions of their apps with dark backgrounds. At first, it seemed like such a fad and I struggled to understand or buy into the hype. After observing Hygge for a few weeks, it all makes sense now.
There are several benefits to designing a Dark Mode version of your product. Among other things, it improves accessibility; increasing contrast for users with vision impairments and color blindness, and also reduces eye strain.
But more importantly, it reduces the amount of blue light that’s emitted from the screen. Blue light exposure, especially in the evening, can increase levels of stress hormones which increase anxiety and reduce quality of sleep.
The internet is meant to enhance everyday life; I want to be able to stay connected with friends and family; I want to win more arguments by quickly Googling random facts; I want to be responsive to clients and colleagues; I want to keep up with the Kardashians.
But the world is telling me to use my phone less. There’s a growing awareness around the relationship our devices have with our mental health, and a popular solution to curbing the negative effects is this “tech detox” thing. Admittedly, I really hate the idea of treating my phone or laptop like it’s junk food.
Improving diet isn’t only about portion control, you also have to swap out the Doritos and donuts with vegetables. Product thinkers can choose healthier ingredients in the dishes they serve, and Dark Mode is one way to do that.
I’ve spent years spending an absurd amount of money on conferences, books, workshops and interviews with design professionals to learn how to improve as a designer and gain perspective.
The most important realization from my reflections and immersion into Hygge was this: Design inspiration comes from everywhere. In fact, I’ve found that I’m at my best when I’m intentional about diversifying my day-to-day experience, rather than obsessing over design books or learning new design tools.
Design is an inherently human thing; to design something well for someone is requires empathy and understanding of the human experience. And what better way to understand the human experience than to immerse yourself in as many versions of it?
Originally published here.