Designing services for well-being
Devices that track our steps, mood or sleep are becoming increasingly popular as we strive towards increased well-being, but how often do we actually think about what well-being means for us, and how does this shape service design?
Our society is obsessed with well-being. Magazine stands are filled with headlines that promise us more wellness, and an increasing amount of tech companies enter the market with new ways to track and measure our activity, sleep, posture, stress and other physical or cognitive attributes for increased well-being.
Companies at the intersection of technology and well-being are seen by many – investors and customers alike – as holding the promise for a better society, but how do they actually frame and talk about well-being? A popular conception of well-being among many of the start-ups that enter the market for wearables revolves around productivity, impression management and self-improvement. So what does this mean? As Marcus Giesler and Ela Veresiu discuss in their article in Journal of Consumer Research, these products and services represent a capabilization of individual responsibilization. This means that they give individuals the tools to carry the responsibilities and solve the problems of structural, societal issues, such as increased pressure for productivity in an ever more competitive workplace, and to match normative conceptions of ideal bodies. In their book “The Wellness Syndrome”, business researchers Carl Cederström and André Spicer warn us about this, by saying that if everyone is obsessed with being well individually, we will not be well together.
So, why do many companies frame well-being in this way? Service researchers Christopher Blocker and Andrés Barrios discuss in an article in Journal of Service Research how service designers are embedded in the value discourses that are shaped by their surrounding social structures. This became evident to me in my doctoral research project, where I’m looking at the discourses around well-being that many wearables present. In the words of the sociologist Anthony Giddens, they play a part in the reproduction of these social structures. Well-being, in other words, often means fitting in and corresponding to societal expectations. These devices tell us to be efficient, to look confident.
On the other hand, some wearables represent another discourse around well-being. They encourage their users to find harmony and balance, to reduce stigma around health issues, to know their bodies, and to distance themselves from the expectations put on us by an increasingly appearance and performance oriented culture. I argue that these companies have taken a different approach to well-being. By having a more reflexive approach to their surrounding structures, they strive to transform these structures. This means that service designers, and entrepreneurs in general, should reflect more on how they think about well-being, and their role within these social structures.
This can be done through comparing ideas of well-being between different cultures, or paying attention to new movements in our own cultures, as with the rise of FemTech. Inspired and affected by feminist movements, an increasing number of tech companies are developing new solutions for female health and well-being – an area now called FemTech, which has largely been neglected by a male-dominated industry. The case of Naya Health, a smart breast pump deemed as “disgusting” by an investor, is a good – albeit somewhat terrible – example of these kinds of cultural biases that shape market offerings.
All in all, it’s good to remember that technology is never neutral, rather it is a reflection of the surrounding culture of its makers. Technology, be it in the form of posture trackers or sleep monitors, is only as good as how we choose to use it. This is why it can be useful for all of us, including service designers, managers and venture capitalists, to take time to reflect on what well-being means for us.
Giesler, M., & Veresiu, E. (2014). Creating the Responsible Consumer: Moralistic Governance Regimes and Consumer Subjectivity. Journal of Consumer Research, 41(3), 840–857.
Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press
Blocker, C. P., & Barrios, A. (2015). The Transformative Value of a Service Experience. Journal of Service Research, 18(3), 265–283.
Cederström, C. & Spicer, A. (2015). The Wellness Syndrome. Polity Press
”Why aren’t mothers worth anything to venture capitalists?” The New Yorker, 25.9.2017. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/why-arent-mothers-worth-anything-to-venture-capitalists