These Clever Designs Annoy You Until You Break Your Bad Habits

Products from The Pleasurable Troublemakers make it just a bit harder to indulge in what you know is bad for you, like overworking and overeating.


You’re headed out the door to work or to the grocery store, and you have a choice–will you take the car or ride your bike?


For most of us, it’s a fairly automatic decision. If you usually drive, you’ll probably drive, even if you want a little extra exercise or a lower carbon footprint. But a new design tries to change that habit by inserting a tiny bit of annoyance in your everyday routine.

The Keymoment is a key rack that holds your bike key and car key at opposite ends. If you choose the car key, the bike key will automatically drop to the ground, forcing you to pick it up and hold both keys in your hands. Suddenly you’re considering the bike ride one more time.

“The idea is that you take this moment and you rescript it,” says Matthias Laschke, a PhD student at Germany’s Folkwang University of the Arts, who worked on the keyholder with his advisor Marc Hassenzahl and a team of students.

The design is part of a series of products called Pleasurable Troublemakers, each intended to alter a certain bad habit by creating a little friction.

There’s the Forget Me Not reading lamp, which starts to slowly close as you work; if you want to leave it on, you have to touch it. The Never Hungry Caterpillar attaches to a power cord to remind you to unplug devices on standby, and if you forget, it starts to writhe as if it’s in pain. The Chocolate Machine trains your self control by dropping a small chocolate ball every hour, and counting the number of times you put it back instead of eating it.

Each of the ideas is different than the usual approaches to behavior change, which tend to focus on simple communication–think of public service campaigns against smoking, which rarely have much of an effect. Even quantified self apps tend to just measure what you’re doing right or wrong, rather than actually intervening at the moment when you’re tempted by whatever it is you want to change.


One of the advantages of the design may be that they’re physical objects, rather than something on a smartphone that you can easily ignore among a hundred other apps.

“Objects have always has the power to shape our behavior even though we often don’t recognize it,” says Laschke. “If you have a building without an elevator, and just stairs, you’re forced to use the stairs. These ideas–whether a lamp or a key as you leave–are better addressed by an object than a smartphone.”

Still, the designers say that some of the ideas could be reworked into apps, and if the products are ever made outside the lab, they’ll likely be connected to apps that help people keep track of how the interventions are changing their lives.

“The reward lies in the activity itself, unlike a badge on Foursquare or points to buy something in a store,” says Laschke. “If you want to save the environment, the app will tell you how much CO2 you’ve saved by using Keymoment. If your motivation is getting fit, it will tell you how many calories you’ve burned.”

The designs aren’t very hard to cheat–if you don’t want your keys to drop on the floor, for example, you can just set them on top of the rack. But Laschke says that’s intentional. “These are super simple objects, not particularly smart,” he says. “We’re acknowledging that humans can fail. But we’ve found that if people know they can cheat a system, they usually won’t, because they know they’re cheating themselves.”

After finishing his dissertation, if he can find the right partners, Laschke hopes to bring some of the designs to life.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."