Toolmaker Talk: Michael Forrest (Happiness)
May 9, 2012
In talking with many toolmakers, I find myself constantly surprised by how different people approach the same, and seemingly simple, issue with very different perspectives. A few months ago I wrote about Mood Panda which went from private to community. In contrast, Michael Forrest’s Happiness has evolved from shared to private. I also find Michael’s experimentation with the look of his app both beautiful and fascinating.
Q: How do you describe Happiness? What is it?
Forrest: Happiness is an iOS mood tracking app. You get randomized reminders to record your mood, and then can view this data graphically and as a journal. The idea is that by using this app, you’ll be able to make better decisions in your life.
Q: What’s the back story? What led to it?
Forrest: I’ve always been inspired by technology’s potential to solve old problems in new ways. I was looking for novel ways to solve mental health problems without resorting to pharmaceutical hacks like antidepressants. I came across Daniel Gilbert’s TED talk “Why Are We Happy?” and read his book where he talks about the marked differences between what we think will make us happy versus what will actually make us happy.. My idea was that even if we can’t make good predictions about how we’ll feel in the future, we can at least start gathering accurate data about our past and use that to reflect on the present moment. I first built a Facebook app, and then moved to the iPhone.
Q: What impact has it had? What have you heard from users?
Forrest: I’ve sold a few copies without doing a great deal of marketing – people seem to discover it on their own. The feedback I have had has been amazing – when it helps people, it is helping them with a fundamental aspect of their life so it didn’t seem beyond the bounds of reason when one user told me it was the ‘single best reason for owning an iPhone’. I have seen an increase in uptake since I put this page together http://goodtohear.co.uk/happiness – people are finally starting to see the point of it and I’ve been getting useful feedback about details of the UI and so on. I’m still really only starting out though.
Q: What makes it different, sets it apart?
Forrest: I know my app isn’t the only way to track your mood, but I want it to be the best way to do so. A lot of decisions have gone into this seemingly simple app.
Single focus: I have deliberately avoided trying to track any other information because happiness has an infinite variety of possible influences that I would never presume to be able to predict for any particular user.
Design: It was important to me that I give the app a personality of its own. Finding a look that wouldn’t interfere with the user’s mood (or annoy them) but still had some personality was not trivial. Initially I drew from artists like Kandinsky and Miro (see here) for the style but over time realised that a journal was a more appropriate look. I have avoided smiley faces in the latest and came up with a very tactile way to report mood from a blank canvas – I don’t want the app to influence the user’s mood in any way at the reporting stage by suggesting anything (but it should still look good!).
Exploration: The charts in Happiness have evolved a lot over time. My original designs were largely tag cloud based. As I personally accumulated entries (I have over 700 reports in my database!) I realised that time-based reporting would become increasingly important. After a lot of trial and error I settled on a monthly reporting cycle. I also made the graphs simple by moving away from multicoloured heatmaps to simple areas filled with red or green. The algorithms used to calculate these areas need to be complex enough to find patterns but self-evident enough that when users look at the reports these seem to match their input. Details of the reports give the tool different usage styles. Simply by numbering my ranked taggings I’ve now started setting myself challenges (e.g. move “Music” from #2 in my life to #1!). There’s also something interesting about getting a blank slate each month to see if you can do better than last month.
Price: Happiness isn’t a free app, and this is a conscious decision. I want users to feel invested immediately since you don’t get instant gratification. The price will always stay around this level while I continue to add value to the app in a multitude of ways.
Privacy: A big benefit of making this app as a native iPhone app is that the data can be stored locally. I want users to feel they can be 100% honest when writing in their diary. There’s even a passcode lock feature to make sure people definitely can’t get in, even if your phone is unlocked.
Q: What are you doing next? How do you see Happiness evolving?
Forrest: Soon I’ll be releasing an iPad version of the app that will sync data via iCloud, and enable larger, more in-depth views of the data. I’ve done some fun experiments around bringing in information and media from users’ social networks which really helps contextualise the more private comments. I like the idea of people being able to share their mood maps as artworks so I have some ideas around this – making this possible without necessarily revealing details to the world.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
Forrest: I’m working as a one-man-team on this project. I love that it’s possible to achieve so much on my own but I’d also prefer to be working more collaboratively. I’m looking into clinical trials, and enabling others to build their own visualizations. Happiness is such a fertile subject that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what is possible with this tool. So if anybody feels inspired by what I’ve done so far and can see opportunities to work together, get in touch.
Price: $1.99 / £1.49
This is the 15th post in the “Toolmaker Talks” series. The QS blog features intrepid self-quantifiers and their stories: what did they do? how did they do it? and what have they learned? In Toolmaker Talks we hear from QS enablers, those observing this QS activity and developing self-quantifying tools: what needs have they observed? what tools have they developed in response? and what have they learned from users’ experiences? If you are a “toolmaker” and want to participate in this series, contact Rajiv Mehta at firstname.lastname@example.org.