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Can Designers Intentionally Design Discomfort?

Jerry Cao
Jerry Cao

By Bouncey2k (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Design and discomfort?

We tend to associate designer’s work with the creation of beauty and well-thought-out comfort. Apple equipment and products designed by Dieter Rams marked the way in which the design is perceived in the world of technology. Refined aesthetics and comfort of use have become the synonyms for design. However, are there such situations in which designers not only can, but even should design for achieving the opposite scenario? Does it ever happen that we must intentionally design discomfort?

Pragmatic mystery

Let’s begin from the fundamental statement:

Design is about something more complex than aesthetics and pleasure of use. What is the most important in design is the effectiveness of a designed product.

What we as designers design must serve its purposes. Beautiful things which are not created with the intention of influencing human behaviour and effective carrying out assumed usage scenarios, belong to the world of art rather than design. Juicy Salif, a lemon squeezer designed by Philippe Starck, is probably the best example of it. This beautiful object is more a kitchen decoration than a useful squeezer (juice from squeezed lemon usually runs everywhere but in a placed glass). Let’s make it straight: Juicy Salif cannot handle a basic usage scenario which would be obvious to every fruit squeezer, so it is not a well-designed product.

Juicy Salif

By Phrontis (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This relationship between designing and purposefulness can lead a designer to surprising solutions. Usually, we want to design something convenient in use, arousing positive emotions and beautiful at the same time, however, it happens that the purpose of the project drives us toward the solutions which are full of obstacles and troubles awaiting a user.

On the one hand, we have so-called dark patterns, on the other hand, solutions in which discomfort serves higher purposes and surely is not a form of manipulation. Both phenomena are worth discussing as a design which seeks to create negative feelings.

Discomfort and Design Dark Patterns

Dark patterns are intentional actions aimed at “tricking” users and directing their interaction with the interface in a previously planned manner, usually closely linked with economic purposes of the product.

Dark patterns are, as a rule, focused on making use of various persuasion techniques. Exerting an influence on users, whether by means of content manipulation or the very design of the interface, can have a very strong impact on the course of interaction and probability of achieving assumed purposes.

An example: the webpage of Ryanair airlines attempts, in a very cunning way, to sell travel insurance as an ancillary product. Designers of this page, in a clever way, make use of a specific “pattern recognition” – when filling in forms, we select our country of residence many times – however, in this case selecting other option than “travel without insurance” adds the costs of insurance to the ticket price.

Ryanair's dark pattern

Another example is the process of unsubscribing from newsletter (example from an excellent page on the topic of Dark Design Patterns: Where the page on which we unsubscribe from the newsletter suggests, first of all, subscribing to another newsletter.

Money Supermarket Unsubscribe Dark Pattern

Image source:

Dark Design Patterns go beyond the frameworks of new technologies (they existed in the real world, and then, often in a more sophisticated form, hit the Internet). A known example of “design patterns” based on manipulations is the intentional loud playing of music in bars, due to the observed correlation between the volume level and the amount of consumed alcohol. People who cannot talk to each other, defeat awkwardness with another drinks.

Loud Bar as a dark design pattern

Photo Credit: Jonathan Kos-Read via Compfight cc

Dark Design Patterns seem to be a short-cut. It is a short-term method which will possibly improve temporary condition of the project, but will surely have negative side-effects in the long run. Why? It is based on cheating users and does not imply any positive experience. User Experience, as a rule, is connected with feelings in relation to a brand. The way in which we treat the users of our webpage will have an influence on the business outcome. And as Ryanair is not associated with the quality of customer service, a bar with too loud music is not associated with a pleasant place. In both cases, we can expect the influence on the results of the whole business.

Dark Design Patterns are not a way of designing discomfort that should be applied. Design, although is pragmatic as a rule, should be characterized by sincerity. Are there projects which are
characterized by discomfort and are not based on a form of manipulation at the same time? Yes! There are such projects and such attitudes to designing in which deliberate causing of discomfort is the essence of the project characterized by sincerity.

Discomfort as the essence of Design?

Let’s imagine a bench in a park. What are its purposes? It is designed to enable a quick rest, give a chance to relax in pleasant surroundings. And what are its possible negative consequences? It turns out that it may be, e.g. attracting the homeless to a given area. Although it is difficult to state what is the exact influence of the availability of comfortable benches on the number of the homeless, yet, we know that making the existence of the homeless easier without proper therapeutic treatment, cannot solve that social problem.

These types of benches were introduced e.g. in Ueno Onshi – the oldest park in Tokyo. Benches on which sleeping was impossible (with simultaneous ensuring the comfort of sitting) soon have become popular all around the world. Discomfort was planned and agreed with the purposes of the project. Yet, it is not a dark pattern.

Anti-homeless bench

Photo Credit:

Similar methods (although much more controversial) are used in designing e.g. anti-skateboarding surfaces which purpose is to make skateboarding difficult, or characteristic speed humps on the road
aimed at forcing drivers to decrease their speed.

Anti-skateboarding surface

Anti-skateboarding surface. Photo Credit: Daquella manera

Therefore, the purposefulness of designing is the supreme value, and designing of discomfort is an integral part of designer’s work. That what is beautiful is not always well-designed, and what is
uncomfortable badly-designed.

If you know any other projects in which discomfort is an intentional part of design – let us know in comments.

Marcin Treder, UXPin CEO

ps. Since you stopped reading…go design something in UXPin and let us know how do you like our design tool.

Jerry Cao

by Jerry Cao

Jerry Cao is a content strategist at UXPin where he gets to put his overly active imagination to paper every day. In a past life, he developed content strategies for clients at Brafton and worked in traditional advertising at DDB San Francisco. In his spare time he enjoys playing electric guitar, watching foreign horror films, and expanding his knowledge of random facts. Follow him on Twitter.

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