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.

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.

Golden Krishna

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