How Design That Makes Us Uncomfortable Can Actually Make Life Better

We actually like it when life isn’t smooth and painless.

How Design That Makes Us Uncomfortable Can Actually Make Life Better
[Illustrations: iulias via Shutterstock]

Humans are full of contradictions. We want life to be easy and convenient. But we also seek out (and thoroughly enjoy) experiences that are not just hard, but quite physically demanding. We run marathons, eat insanely hot chilies, even drive cross-country in tiny cars. This reveals a fundamental tension in the design field: “Usability” has traditionally meant making products and services easier for and less demanding on their users. But what about the times when we want a veritable challenge, complete with pain and discomfort?


There are a lot of good reasons to design things to be intentionally hard. Strategic doses of inconvenience can nudge us towards healthier choices and behaviors. And intellectually challenging, complex activities can elicit feelings of mastery and exclusivity. But what about this craving for physical challenges? How might these tendencies shape our broader approach to experience design? And how can we incorporate moments of physical pain and discomfort as positive features, rather than faults?

Humans are obviously not purely rational creatures. One of our strangest biases is that we attribute greater value to outcomes that were harder for us to achieve. Social Psychologists call this phenomenon “effort justification.” Effort justification helps explain why we seek out discomfort in things that are “supposed” to be hard: Many people savor the sting of a harsh aftershave lotion or the intensity of a deep-tissue massage, in part, because the pain signals to us that it’s “working.”

Given the right conditions, physical pain also offers some other surprising benefits. Social Psychologist Brock Bastian has written that, “pain is a kind of shortcut to mindfulness: It makes us suddenly aware of everything in the environment. It brutally draws us into a virtual sensory awareness of the world, much like meditation.” This is partially why some of my colleagues at Altitude prefer to work at standing desks, or keep the thermostat a few degrees cooler. Perhaps it’s also why some people prefer tighter car suspensions and manual transmissions. They are ultimately less comfortable to operate, but they also help the driver stay more actively attuned to the moving vehicle.

Humans are, of course, naturally social animals. And while painful experiences offer benefits on an individual level, they’re even more powerful within groups. A 2014 study conducted by Bastian, for example, revealed that sharing painful experiences with others directly enhanced social bonding and cooperation. Physical activities like Tough Mudder, Polar Bear Plunges, and military basic training are designed around this exact principle. Bastian writes that, “the willingness and ability to endure pain for some greater cause tells you something about yourself and your fellow sufferers.” It builds an immediate camaraderie and also helps people enjoy subsequent activities more by comparison. This is why Tough Mudder always features a large post-race party (and why religious rituals typically involve a feast after a fast).

What, then, does all of this all mean for designers? Are we to assume that instead of designing for pleasure and usability, we should become sadists, intent on inflicting pain and frustration?  
Far from it. Uncomfortable design requires a few, specific conditions:

1. Make it opt-in

The user should always be fully informed and given the chance to opt-into the uncomfortable experience. Opting in creates a sense of agency and helps calibrate people’s expectations in advance. Painful activities, such as Polar Bear Plunges, are popular precisely because participants feel like they’re taking part by choice, which gives them ample time to tailor their own mental narratives. If I forced someone to jump into icy-cold water (or pushed them in without any advance warning), for example, they would feel way less satisfied. Or to put it another way: The difference between “work” and “fun” is often the element of autonomy and individual choice.


2. Keep them in control

Similarly, the user should also feel like they have the ability to opt out at any time, or at least determine their own level of participation. During a painful massage, for example, the receiver should always feel like they could ask for less pressure. Psychologists use the term “internal locus of control” to describe the belief that one can affect the events happening around them. This belief is strongly correlated with increased confidence and resilience. And the medical field has successfully leveraged this insight for years in the field of patient-controlled pain management. No hospital stay would ever be described as “fun,” of course. But when patients control their own post-surgery morphine drips, rather than having to ask a nurse for permission, they report higher levels of satisfaction and actually consume much less medication.

3. Facilitate the retelling

What people experience and what people remember about what they experience are two totally different things. And when someone has gone through adversity, they usually want to share their story with others. Part of the success of obstacle course races, for example, is due to the post-race memories they provide. To many participants, an afternoon spent getting electrocuted in wet shoes is nothing compared to the value of a photo or GoPro video that signals to others that you actually did it. Sometimes the memories of the experience are reason alone to attempt something in the first place: Why else would people walk over coals in bare feet?

Difficulty and discomfort are inevitable parts of life. And the design world will continue to minimize them through new products and services that enhance people’s lives. But uncomfortable experiences offer some surprising benefits: They bring people together and provide them valuable feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. And physical pain, as an immediate marker of difficulty, can promote mindfulness and focus, making outcomes feel more memorable and worthwhile. A holistic approach to experience design should give designers permission to strategically get tough, on occasion. As T.S. Eliot so aptly put it: “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”