Essays & Articles


Positive computing: technology for wellbeing and human potential (Calvo & Peters)

Calvo, R. A., & Peters, D. (2014). Positive computing: technology for wellbeing and human potential.Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

The design of human-computer systems used to focus upon the negative, the breakdowns that confused and confounded people. Now it is time to move to the next level, to focus upon the positive, systems that are enjoyable and pleasurable.

We need systems that delight as well as inform, systems that create pleasure along with useful function. We need systems that are resilient, that promote control, understanding, and sometimes just plain pleasure. The design field has responded by examining the role of emotions and pleasure in design. We need to move these findings into mainstream computing.

Modern gesture devices provide physical pleasure. It’s delightful to “toss” a file to another person, or to slide photographs across a virtue tabletop, rotating, stretching, or shrinking them. I am a fan of the lovely “bounce” that a list of scrolling items does when it reaches the end, and then I enjoy trying to pull down the top item from the top of the screen, seeing how far I can get it to move until it resists and springs back to its proper location. Do all these gestures, movements, stretching, and bouncing provide function? No, but who cares: they provide pleasure.

Beautiful aesthetics and creative fun are equally important. Engineers and business people are apt to object: “what has that got to do with getting the job done?” they will ask. But note: many master chefs in the world’s best restaurants spend as much time on the presentation of the food as on the ingredients and cooking. “Attractive things work better,” I once wrote, and they do, if only because a positive mood quickly dismisses as trivial and irrelevant minor difficulties that can trigger a state of irritability when in a negative mood. I watch people struggle to understand how to do things on their smart phones, only to finish and tell me, smiling, “that was easy.” The moral is simple: we must consider the presentation of our computer applications.

Lots of psychological research supports the observation that we remember best and weigh most highly the ending of an experience. (Next highest is the start – of least importance is the middle.) End well, and in one’s memory, the total experience was great. Difficulties are often unavoidable in the performance of complex tasks, but design for fun and pleasure with a positive and uplifting ending and all will be forgiven. Memory triumphs reality. After all, an experience exists only at its moment of occurrence: the memory of the experience lives on long afterwards. Design for the memory. Positive computing? It is about time.

Sidebar for Calvo, R. A., & Peters, D. (2014). Positive computing: technology for wellbeing and human potential. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

My book-of-the-book blurb for the book:

“Few people think of technology as uplifting, delightful, and enjoyable. Sure, our stuff works, but far too often at the cost of increased anxiety, frustration, and a feeling of disempowerment. In Positive Computing, Calvo and Peters show how research in the psychological principles of enjoyment, engagement, and empowerment can be used to design technology that enhances our lives, creates more engagement and pleasure, and makes positive contributions to our emotional lives. Three cheers to Calvo and Peters for Positive Computing: It’s about time.”