Leaving an experience with a happy feeling turns out to be a big predictor of future positive actions.

Think about what keeps you coming back to a favorite community, a favorite website, or a favorite app. It's not persuasive marketing copy. It is not the color of a sign up button. It's not beautiful photos. It's a positive, but perhaps complicated, emotional connection.

People experience a device, website, or app holistically. They don't remember details about the design. When asked to draw a site or app from memory, they focus on some things and dismiss others. They almost certainly miss some of the delightful details that designers add to a website, like a clever error message or a nifty animation. They have trouble answering questions like "How would you rate the usability of the navigation?" or "How appealing is the visual design?" even if they are asked right after using a site or app. And it's hard to interpret what an answer to that question really means.

However, people do know how they feel. In positive psychology and behavioral economics, happiness is measured by asking in various ways. Sometimes this means asking a combination of questions like the Gross National Happiness Index or Oxford Happiness Inventory. It can mean asking just a few questions, like Ed Deiner's Satisfaction with Life scale or Sonja Lyubormirsky's Subjective Well Being Scale. Even asking just one question seems to correlate with other factors of subjective well-being.

Framing the Research

As an experiment, my colleagues and I chose 250 top websites in e-commerce, healthcare, travel, entertainment, and banking, the kind of sites people experience all the time. These are sites not especially geared toward actively creating happiness (like one that tracks your mood, for instance), but some of the top sites that people use all the time. A wide range of people, about 8,000, interacted with the sites. As they interacted with each site, we recorded the experience and tracked interactions like time and clicks and scrolling. Right after, we asked them about their experience.

The goal was to understand whether there was a connection between the feeling people take away from an experience and their current behavior or future intent. Since we wanted to determine the impact positive emotion might have on the experience, we asked them to rate how they felt. We also asked how much they trusted the site and why, whether they would recommend and why, and whether would they take action and why. In addition, we tracked metrics for ease of use like time on task, success rate, stumbling blocks, and other interactions.

What We Learned About Happiness and Websites

Once we had reached enough responses to feel comfortable drawing conclusions, we began to look at the data. Here are the patterns that emerged.

1. Lack of success translated to a low happiness rating. When people had trouble finding information or doing what they set out to do, they reported feeling less happy. Time on the site was typically shorter, too. Sites that follow familiar design patterns, like Zappos or Amazon, or that people use all the time, like Expedia, fare better for ease of use. Likewise, people rated their happiness higher.

2. A high happiness rating closely correlates with a high likelihood to recommend. The reasons people recommend or don't recommend a site are complicated, ranging from not feeling comfortable recommending a type of product or site to just not "being the type of person who tells people what to do". Yet, if people reported feeling happy after using a website, their likelihood to recommend invariably went up.

3. When people leave with a happy feeling, they perceive the site as better than other sites. One of the questions we asked in the study was whether people thought the site was better, about the same, or worse than other sites they use. The sites that people identify as better—fewer than 5% of all the sites in the study—had a strong correlation with high happiness ratings. Amazon, Ally, and Apple are just a few of the sites that fall into this category.

4. A high happiness rating aligned with a high likelihood to return. A happy feeling may not be the only reason people return to sites, but there is a strong relationship between coming away with a positive feeling and subsequent behavior. Healthcare.gov was included in the study twice, once when the site first launched and again a few months later. Happiness was one of the lowest of all the sites in our dataset the first time out with low likelihood to return (about 35% each). After changes were made, happiness improved along with likelihood to return.

Bubble chart of happiness and likelihood to return

5. Happy customers explore and engage. While a higher happiness rating did not always result in more time on a site, it did result in a slightly broader range of interactions. In other words, people explored a bit more on the sites that made them happy. HGTV, WebMD, and even PNC Home Lending are examples of sites where feeling happy was related to exploration on the site during the study as well as intent to try more types of interactions such as watching a video or trying a calculator or taking a quiz.

What Happiness Means for Designing Experiences

The research indicates that when it comes to online experiences, positive emotions prompt positive actions. Happiness maps to brand attachment, intent to purchase or take action, and recommendations. It turns out that leaving an experience with a happy feeling has a measurable and significant impact on future behavior.

Happiness functions as a realistic measure, given that people experience sites and apps holistically. In other words, people don't distinguish ease of use from marketing copy from delightful micro-interactions. The online experience, the offline experience, previous use, competitor use, and opinions of others are bundled together when people recall the experience.

As a measure in the context of using a website, app, or device, happiness can function as a proxy measure for future positive intent. A happiness metric helps us to understand how people feel about themselves after an experience, and that is the ultimate bottom line.

By Pamela Pavliscak
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