Bruce Willen | Essays

In Defense of Inconvenience

Seductively efficient, easy-to-use products are the gold standard within design and tech. But is this convenient, frictionless user experience actually what we’ve been looking for?

The difference really struck me on my first visit to the new video store. Like many cities, Baltimore’s last movie rental shop closed several years ago, unable to compete with streaming sites. Recently, a group of idealistic movie geeks resurrected the video rental concept in Baltimore with a subscription-based, nonprofit business model and an impressively curated selection of DVDs and Blu-rays.

After years of Netflix’s meager streaming offerings, entering a building packed full of amazing movies felt unexpectedly profound, like a shift from black and white to technicolor. Here I was, browsing again, rediscovering old favorites next to intriguing obscurities. Cool cover designs catch my eye. I scan across the films of Yorgos Latimos, Sidney Lumet, and David Lynch. Knowledgeable staff share recommendations and film trivia. The experience is simultaneously intuitive and random, promoting exploration, serendipity, and human connection.

Spaces like Beyond Video that encourage discovery and unplanned encounters are slowly being designed out of our lives. It’s not only algorithms and biased AI narrowing our field of vision. In both digital and physical realms, increasingly engineered user experiences create mental ruts meant to lock in behavioral patterns.

In most instances, designers seek to create a smooth, intuitive interface with our audience. We want whoever is navigating our website, absorbing our message, or operating our product to do so quickly and confidently.

Convenience can enable greater productivity. We can divide our focus between dozens of tasks, speed through necessary errands, and outsource some of our most tedious activities. Convenience also feels good. Quickly accomplishing a task from a touch screen gives a little sugar rush of satisfaction as we scroll to the next item on our list. But like candy this sweet gratification is fleeting rather than fulfilling. And we rarely find convenience where it can do the most good, like reducing our carbon footprint or getting healthcare. The most seamless and effortless experiences are those that harvest something from us — our data, money, time, attention.
Convenience can enable greater productivity....Convenience also feels good.

Designers (and the clients who hire us) continue to deify convenience without considering its consequences. What if frictionless experiences are not always in the best interest of the end user?

In the early 2000s, navigating the web was a completely different experience. Before Google zipped us to our destination in seconds, the internet would lead me on meandering journeys as I followed trails of inscrutable URLs and sifted through “Recommended Links” pages or curated web directories. Sometimes I never made it to my destination, but often along the way I discovered a new website, resource, artist, or revelatory nugget of information that I had not set out to find. This exploratory experience could be frustrating, but it was just as frequently wondrous.

“Browsing the web” lives on in our lexicon, but less so in our experience. Highly directed and funneled “encounters” have replaced browsing. Powerful search engines, data-driven design, and behavioral psychology offer us illusions of control and accomplishment while constraining our explorations within a shrinking environment of corporate content providers and platforms.

An entire branch of design has evolved to engineer our interactions with the people, objects, and environment around us, shaping how we consume products and information. User experience design (UX) melds behavioral psychology with product design. A good UX designer will consider their users’ motivations and desires alongside functional and aesthetic choices, whether designing a cell phone, store layout, or a meal delivery service. Convenience, real or perceived, is a strong motivator for human behavior.
“Browsing the web” lives on in our lexicon, but less so in our experience.

The ascendancy of the user experience has influenced all branches of design and tech. Design has always held hands with commerce, but in our data- and UX-driven era this relationship has become increasingly codependent. Design has become the great enabler to capitalism’s worst instincts. We place the greatest value on design solutions that sell products efficiently and addictively, and that have data to prove it.

Unironically we now call people “users,” an eerily appropriate way to describe our increasingly addictive and destructive relationship with technology. We readily delude ourselves that we can optimize our complex lives through apps and services.

Technology has streamlined our interactions with neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family. Social media’s great promise was to make these relationships efficient and low-maintenance. We can now connect with thousands of friends and easily avoid uncomfortable situations, but these communications have become more one-sided. The gorgeous, messy nuance of human emotion is now a column of avatars and likes.

Inconvenience activates us as human beings. Our bodies are built to respond to resistance. We develop our muscles and lung capacity through repeated exercise and strenuous work. Our mental and emotional capacities are no different. As we acclimatize to convenience will it diminish our capacity for exploration and for navigating emotionally complex situations? When we sand the sharp edges off of our experiences, it allows us to forget that life is inherently weird and challenging.

Inconvenient paths often lead to moments of discovery, like learning a new way to solve a problem, meeting a neighbor, or finding a new film director at the video rental store. Meandering journeys — physical or digital — take us down unanticipated paths. Penicillin, x-ray imaging, velcro, and the slinky are just some of the countless scientific breakthroughs and inventions that developed from unforeseen digressions. Curiosity goes hand-in-hand with inconvenience. Being open to the inconvenient results of a science experiment is no different from engaging in conversation with a stranger. In order to learn, thrive, and discover new relationships we must accept uncomfortable ideas and embrace detours.

Comfortability and convenience drive most of our day-to-day decisions. But the march towards greater convenience and productivity doesn’t just reduce human experience, it detaches us from the natural world. Pre-industrial cultures understood humans’ deep interconnectivity with our planet, the inherent chaos and complexity of life on earth. Today we have the luxury to consume water and fossil fuel with the flip of a switch or click of a mouse. We inflict environmental catastrophes at convenient, ignorable distances.
The march towards greater convenience and productivity doesn’t just reduce human experience, it detaches us from the natural world.

Over the last 100 years we’ve restructured human society around the automobile, one of the most destructive products ever created. Like social media, the car promises convenience, an irresistible and addictive sense of autonomy for which we spend sizable portions of our lives financing and maintaining. We’ve replaced the perceived inconvenience of shared transportation with millions of miles of asphalt that further separate us from each other and from a catastrophically warming climate.

When I drive I prioritize destination over journey. My expectation of a quick, effortless trip transforms other drivers and pedestrians into obstacles. Consider public transit, where we surrender the illusion of control, freeing our minds to wander and our tongues to risk conversation with strangers. Or walking, where we move at a less convenient speed, and we can delight in the architectural details and street life that would otherwise escape our gaze. Walking is good for both daydreams and discoveries.

As designers, can we create experiences that are as human and fulfilling as a walk down a tree-lined street? Can we build places, products, and platforms that open doors for diversion, learning, and personal connection? Can we advocate for intentional design that cultivates community?

We don’t have to make our tools, products, and communication platforms frustrating and unsafe. But we can choose to focus efficiency where it matters most — building pathways towards greater sustainability, insight, justice, and community. Designers should also recognize that convenience doesn’t always create meaningful outcomes for our audiences or for our clients. As more of our world moves into the digital realm, we can continue to endorse convenient products that impoverish our experiences. Or we can re-embrace browsing and serendipity, allow more room for productive aimlessness, and encourage more meaningful human interactions.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design

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