Making it suck

At Cooper, we spend thousands of hours designing systems around the goals and motivations of the people that will use them. We travel across the country, continent and world to have conversations with real users to ensure that we understand their needs and that our design decisions will make their everyday tasks easier and more intuitive to accomplish.

But perhaps we can improve our methods by considering an inverse approach: What if our intent was to frustrate, rather than ease? What if we intentionally made things subtly challenging and unintuitive?

Aside from simply malicious design, is there anything that intentionally facilitates a bad experience? Why would someone do that to other people? For what reasons might something be made to suck?

Making walking suck (for strength)

I was first thinking about this a few months ago when I was with my brother who just had his first kid (making me a first-time uncle). We were at Target to buy some diapers when a woman in her thirties walked by wearing a pair of shoes that were anything but ordinary.

Take the typical athletic shoe company: In general, they’ve probably been trying to make the shoe experience better by iterating designs and materials in an attempt to make it easier to walk, run or jump.

The woman at Target was wearing a pair of shoes that had, well, a different goal. Despite being sold in the same retail space as shoes that boast comfort and support, the shoes didn’t make walking better; they made it worse. In fact, the intent of the shoes was to make walking suck.

The shoes are called “Shape Ups.” Because walking in them is more difficult, wearing them is considered “exercise.” And a thirty-something mother in the diaper section at Target might figure she doesn’t have the time to exercise anymore, so she made walking suck in an attempt to get fit.

Making everyday experiences more difficult is actually common in exercise equipment. Lifting weights, for example, adds resistance to common arm and leg movements. Shape Ups just apply this principle to walking. They make walking suck so that their users can become stronger doing everyday activities.

Making you feel sick (for fun)

In sixth grade, those of us nerdy enough to be a part of Safety Patrol—the early risers who helped classmates cross the street—took a field trip to Adventureland, a theme park in our home state of Iowa. It was a reward for a year of hard work.

One of my good friends got on a popular ride called the Silly Silo. To participate is simple: Stand inside a silo while it spins around and around at a quicker and quicker rate.

While many products aim directly at making you feel good, the Silly Silo is designed to make you feel horrible. Participants exit feeling dizzy and motion sickness. For my friend, the result was puking into the nearest trash can.

If a piece of business software caused you to feel dizzy, motion sickness or induce vomiting, it’d be a disaster. But in the world of amusement, engaging our body’s natural gag reaction can be a great thing. Rides like the Silly Silo, those that drop you thirty stories, or roller coasters that flip you upside down are among the many common amusement park attractions that generate fun out of the rush a horrible feeling provides.

Making ugly websites (for good business)

A local store in the Silicon Valley asked me to create a website for them a few years ago. I jumped at the chance. I loved the owner’s vision, his dedication to the community and his desire to create it with beautiful design. But something felt strange about creating such a professional site for a small shop.

Around that time, in 2006, Luke Wroblewski wrote a blog post titled “Make it Ugly” in which he described clients that wanted ugly websites so that the sites would feel more “genuine.” Luke made an argument against the idea, but desiring ugly in search of authenticity isn’t an unusual thought. Fourteen years earlier, in 1992, Ellen Lupton wrote “Low and High” in Eye Magazine, which discussed the history of graphic designers exploring low-brow aesthetics.

comic-sans-signage.jpg
Nothing says local like Comic Sans. (Flickr by marblegravy)

I didn’t make the store’s website suck. But after they closed their doors—a year after I designed their site—maybe I should have. After all, littering your store with Papyrus, Comic Sans menus or having a dated website screams to the visitor, among other things, “Hey, I’m local. I’m the real deal.” Conversely, professional typography, an elegant color palette, and rock-solid IA might communicate, “I’m a chain. I’m corporate.” Making these elements suck a little might have better communicated the store’s local, personal approach.

Making airport seats suck (for prevention)

In 2008, I was sitting at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport exhausted, depressed and trying to fall asleep. I had run through an airport in Colorado, faced a long-delayed flight in California and, by the end of the night, had been re-routed across the country to Chicago in hopes of catching an early morning flight to make the funeral of a close friend that had died days earlier in Iowa.

Despite being emotionally and physically drained, I couldn’t fall asleep on the seats at O’Hare. I tried resting my legs on my bag, sleeping sideways in a corner, extending myself across two rows of seats and just about every possible other position to get some sleep. None of them worked. Even though O’Hare has a history of Eames design, the Chicago airport’s oddly shaped seats and large armrests made it impossible for me to get comfortable. Of the hundreds of things that are frustrating with air travel, why would anyone be cruel enough to top it all off with terrible seating?

Air travelers in Paris
Air travelers in Paris attempt to sleep. (Flickr by Pinelife)

A few weeks before my experience in Chicago, Chris Noessel, a co-worker at Cooper, posted on this blog about slanty design (or what some Cooperistas call “design friction.”) The idea of “slanty design” came from an article by Russell Beale in which he described slanted reading tables at the Library of Congress that prevent visitors from setting down drinks and risking spills. Since the tables suck to eat on, they discourage visitors from bringing food that might ruin the library’s collection. (Beale’s article has a few more examples if you’re curious.)

The Library of Congress didn’t actually design their reading tables to prevent visitors from eating food, it just works out that way. But the chairs that I couldn’t sleep on at O’Hare were designed to prevent sleeping. The large armrests in-between each seat are intended to make sleeping suck so that people don’t sleep at airports.

There are plenty of other examples of design intended to prevent behavior. Speed bumps, for example, discourage speeding. Or, similar to the airport seats, some bus benches have ridges to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them. These things make a particular behavior suck to prevent it from happening.

Why it’s made to suck

Making conventional interactions suck seems counter-intuitive and cruel. But there are plethora of products and services that aim to suck at common expectations for good reason. Among the many possibilities, things that suck can lead to strength, fun, good business and can introduce friction to prevent improper usage.

17 Comments

Andrew
Do the Library of Congress even allow people to take food and drinks in? I don't think I've ever been in a library that does, and all serious libraries (e.g. our equivalent, the British Library) actually check bags for potentially damaging items. Even pens. Another good example of slanty design: the old Silicon Graphics workstations that all had curvy tops, possibly to stop people resting drinks on what were at the time VERY expensive computers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SgiOctane.jpg
Spencer Tipping
Very interesting post! So now I wonder, is your definition of suckage instead simply a changing demand of consumers? Obviously when asked the question, "Do you want a product that sucks or one that is awesome," few would reply "one that sucks for me, please." But consumers are infamous in software circles for not necessarily knowing what they want, just why they want it. If we can design something that better meets their needs (even needs they might not know they had), then even though in our minds it sucks more, the utilitarian boost on their end means that from a purely economic standpoint it actually sucks less. (And in general, I imagine if you designed products that sucked without a good reason to, you'd face an irate, scathing user base. Consider a car that started reliably half the time and dropped the engine out of the bottom the other half -- even in Boulder, "to motivate cycling and walking," that wouldn't go over well.) I think at the end of the day people still need to get a job done, but perhaps the utility of suckage arises when the product changes a small aesthetic in the user's life that leads to a large change in their behavior. Perhaps it's a roundabout way to effect a subconscious behavioral change via conscious means (people do have that fundamental disconnect otherwise). Rather than selling convenience, then, producers are selling edification. A fundamental market shift to address the wide consensus that hedonistic consumerism-for-convenience is unfulfilling? (This leads to some really fascinating market philosophy, but I think I'll stop here :) )
Doctor
Sleep tip: Sit in chair. Cross your hands on your knees. (Optional) put your folded sweater on your hands. Put your head on your hands (or sweater). Sleep.
Gabe
This is a great article pointing out other forms of design. I feel that suck level can only be measured by the person experiencing the design. What sucks for a person sitting in the crappy chairs at the airport is great for the airport, and what sucks for the person riding over the speed bump is great for the people walking around in the parking lot. So you can say "Making it suck", but I would like to still say "Making it great".
Nick Drake
What a great way to analyze old things in a new way...maybe I should use it to look at my Mortgage Net Branch web site. I am with Andrew though...I don't think they will let you bring food or drinks into the library.
Pete
University of Portland, a catholic university, furnishes their dorms & on-campus apartments with couches that have 3 individual cushions with hard wood between them instead of a single long cushion. The idea was probably to stop snuggling, sleeping or any other activities... the students call them "chastity couches".
Tom Johnson
Fascinating approach. I'd never thought of design from the reverse point of view like this. I think in communications, there's a parallel as well. If we don't want a user to know something, we bury it in the help content and spin it in euphemisms. In short, we make the language so poor that users can't learn it.
Golden Krishna
@Andrew: great image! I'm not sure about the rules at the Library of Congress: the example was from Russell Beale's article in "Communications of the ACM." @Spencer: thank you. And thanks for the insight. Feel no need to cut the comment short. Good thinking rarely occurs in 140 characters. @Doctor: hahaha. Thank you. hugh3, commenting on this article externally at Hacker News, provided a link for those of you ever stranded in an airport: http://www.sleepinginairports.net/ @Gabe: Sure. One way to look at "Making it suck" is that these examples are incredibly focused designs, unsuitable and unintuitive for the masses, but great for a select few. Why does this suck? You might say, for the 1% that need x or y. Usability experts often complain and give lectures about things that at first glance feel wrong; and considering the popularity of crowd-sourcing and open source communities in which the opinion of many are considered, extremely focused design seems like a rare event. Your argument that these things are actually great design is an interesting perspective. @Nick: thanks. @Peter: wow. What a great story. I almost wish I went there just so I could have added it to this blog post. @Tom: thanks. Another way of thinking about thinking inversely is having empathy. I think the natural inclination when experiencing a bad design is that someone stupid made the product, when in reality, it could have been a very smart person designing it that way for a very good reason. An addendum: In 2006, Seth Godin gave a lecture at the Gel Conference in which he described, towards the end of his lecture, things that are "broken on purpose." I came across his lecture when researching for this essay, but since I couldn't fit it in, I thought I'd link to it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_this_is_broken_1.html
Golden Krishna
@Andrew: great image! I'm not sure about the rules at the Library of Congress: the example was from Russell Beale's article in "Communications of the ACM." @Spencer: thank you. And thanks for the insight. Feel no need to cut the comment short. Good thinking rarely occurs in 140 characters. @Doctor: hahaha. Thank you. hugh3, commenting on this article externally at Hacker News, provided a link for those of you ever stranded in an airport: @Gabe: Sure. One way to look at "Making it suck" is that these examples are incredibly focused designs, unsuitable and unintuitive for the masses, but great for a select few. Why does this suck? You might say, for the 1% that need x or y. Usability experts often complain and give lectures about things that at first glance feel wrong; and considering the popularity of crowd-sourcing and open source communities in which the opinion of many are considered, extremely focused design seems like a rare event. Your argument that these things are actually great design is an interesting perspective. @Nick: thanks. @Peter: wow. What a great story. I almost wish I went there just so I could have added it to this blog post. @Tom: thanks. Another way of thinking about thinking inversely is having empathy. I think the natural inclination when experiencing a bad design is that someone stupid made the product, when in reality, it could have been a very smart person designing it that way for a very good reason. An addendum: In 2006, Seth Godin gave a lecture at the Gel Conference in which he described, towards the end of his lecture, things that are "broken on purpose." I came across his lecture when researching for this essay, but since I couldn't fit it in, I thought I'd link to it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_this_is_broken_1.html
Golden Krishna
@Andrew: great image! I'm not sure about the rules at the Library of Congress: the example was from Russell Beale's article in "Communications of the ACM." @Spencer: thank you. And thanks for the insight. Feel no need to cut the comment short. Good thinking rarely occurs in 140 characters. @Doctor: hahaha. Thank you. hugh3, commenting on this article externally at Hacker News (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1767434), provided a link anyone ever stranded in an airport: http://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_this_is_broken_1.html
Golden Krishna
@Andrew: great image! I'm not sure about the rules at the Library of Congress: the example was from Russell Beale's article in "Communications of the ACM." @Spencer: thank you. And thanks for the insight. Feel no need to cut the comment short. Good thinking rarely occurs in 140 characters. @Doctor: hahaha. Thank you. hugh3, commenting on this article externally at Hacker News (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1767434), provided a link for anyone ever stranded in an airport: http://www.worldmate.com/travelog/2010/07/17/9-unusual-places-to-sleep-in-airports/ @Gabe: Sure. One way to look at "Making it suck" is that these examples are incredibly focused designs, unsuitable and unintuitive for the masses, but great for a select few. Why does this suck? You might say, for the 1% that need x or y. Usability experts sometimes complain and give lectures about things that don't work for the average person; and considering the popularity of crowd-sourcing and open source communities in which the opinion of many are considered, extremely focused design seems like a rare event. Your argument that these things are actually great design is an interesting perspective. @Nick: thanks. @Peter: wow. What a great story. I almost wish I went there just so I could have added it to this blog post. @Tom: thanks. Another way of thinking about thinking inversely is having empathy. I think the natural inclination when experiencing a bad design is that someone stupid made the product, when in reality, it could have been a very smart person designing it that way for a very good reason. An addendum: In 2006, Seth Godin gave a lecture at the Gel Conference in which he described, towards the end of his lecture, things that are "broken on purpose." I came across his lecture when researching for this essay, but since I couldn't fit it in, I thought I'd link to it here: http://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_this_is_broken_1.html
Kim
A thought provoking post. The broken by design concept, although initially perverse, shows up with surprising frequency. It seems to be the direct conflict between organisation goals and user goals that cause them. A couple of my favorites include: - If supermarkets were designed by usability people, the bread and milk would be right by check-out, which would be an easy turn to after entering the building (rather than the half mile hike). They would also probably go out of business pretty soon too. - The various little metal tags that get inserted into any flat marble or stone surface to prevent skateboarders from grinding them away. - Captcha images: some of these are getting pretty difficult to read for people now.
Golden Krishna
@Kim: thanks for commenting! That's a great example about supermarkets. To add to your point, Walgreens, for example, advertises itself as "Your Home for Prescriptions," but the Rx counter is in the back of the store, forcing you to go through aisles and aisles of other goods they're trying to sell you. But I wouldn't have included either example in the article because I was looking for things that felt less like a scam; although the grocery store one is deliciously sneaky... Speaking of CAPTCHAs, I recently read a blog post about an article in the Boston Globe in which researchers showed that making a font suck -- hard to read -- made readers "think more abstractly" and better answer trick questions.
Nick Myers
Nice post. I've used this technique to provide a personal, authentic and grass-roots experience for a charitable campaign. If the design felt too polished or professional then it might have felt too organized and not encouraged people to act. An example of sucky design that comes to mind is fast food restaurant seat designs. They are usually plastic and uncomfortably hard by design to encourage faster customer turnaround (as well as easier cleaning). McDonald's and other fast food chains are changing this approach though with newer store designs that encourage people to stay longer in the hope that they'll pay for more food, beverages and services.
Being Contrarian | I'd Rather Be Writing
[...] to an interesting thesis/argument. You can see it in posts like In Defense of Lorem Ipsum and Making It Suck. It’s exhilarating to watch an unconventional argument unfold, to find yourself being [...]
areUXperienced? | This post sucks. But in a good way.
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John Walters
Here’s a link to Ellen Lupton’s ‘High and low’.

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