• Dhruti Soni

What are we missing?

Women & Design // WID Insights

I used to think creating products and experiences meant delivering "pleasant" or "enjoyable" experiences for the users. Boy, was I wrong. Read on to find out how products, experiences and everything 'designed' could have the possibility to reflect real life.

Have you ever used a product which induced frustration and confusion slowly evolving into sadness which then works itself out to provide happiness, satisfaction and enjoyment? Me neither. Perhaps that's what is missing in 21st century design. I used to think creating products and interfaces meant delivering "pleasant" or "enjoyable" experiences for the users. "Well, at least that's what all the designers would say they strived to deliver in their LinkedIn bio — and I believed that's what we need to deliver. Boy, was I wrong.



In early 2020, I dived into dark depths of negative emotions to truly understand what role they play to curate a carefully planned experience. Along the way, I discovered some pretty cool stuff! I used to think creating products and experiences meant designing "pleasant" or "enjoyable" experiences for the users. However, when you think about those experiences you don't design - say moving to a new place or a new city - what emotions would you experience? You may feel sad about leaving family and friends behind, but happy and excited to move to a new place and meet some new ones. You may be anxious about the uncertainty of it all, yet amidst all you're most definitely hopeful about all the new good things that await. There's no one set emotion that you're expected to experience, but rather it's a combination of these emotions that make the overall experience of moving to a new city one you can't forget. Afterall, it's those bittersweet memories that leave a lasting impact. A product experience, on the contrary, does not leave you with mixed emotions or make you 'work for it', it's a simple give and get scenario. But why don't they, why is there a gap between an experience that you go through on a day to day basis, as compared to one that has been carefully designed just for you. What are we missing?


A simple answer may be that as designers, we design for immediate pleasure rather than longer-term experiences. What we missed out on is that these 'longer-term' experiences are the ones people are more likely to remember. "It's not the immediate pleasures that encompass themselves into our memories, but rather the rich taste of bitter-sweet experiences that stay engraved in our memories." Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby explained "Experiences should go beyond the assumptions of the everyday human, rather, explore and understand the complexity of their desires and behaviors."

It's the common combination of a plethora of emotions. Predominantly igniting a 'negative' fright response that slowly converges towards an excited adrenaline rush eventually plaoting with a 'positive' sense of pride and accomplishment. Taking the user from one end of the emotional spectrum, to another; this is what makes extreme experiences unique. "A story without any antagonists, or dramatic tension is considered 'emotionally flat' and isn't considered enjoyable." Take movies, books, film, theatre, and even video games — all things that create exciting, thrilling, experiences that we occasionally crave. Including negative emotions as a prominent aspect of an experience that can then be rewarded with positive successes such as satisfaction and a sense of achievement — a creates an overall culturally rich experience that users enjoy and crave. Then why, as designers, do we stay mistaken and perceive negative experiences as "unpleasant" and stick to delivering solely "positive" experiences?


This brings us to the elephant in the room; But what are extreme experiences? Why are these extreme experiences more enjoyable? ...and what makes these extreme experiences so culturally rich??

Not all designers stray away from exciting approaches to their designs, some really make their users work for it. I mean, really work for it. A great example is the Tyrant, by Alice Wang; an alarm clock that captures the drowsy users attention, not by screeching as an usual alarm clock would, but rather by calling random people from the users contact list every 3 minutes post their 'wake-time'. The daunting idea of your alarm clock calling random people from your address book (your mom, an old friend you're no longer in touch with, or even an ex, yikes!) just because you didn't wake up on time - certainly motivating their users to get right out of bed. These products that Dunne and Raby shared in their article and book, which they termed as "Haute Couture" Designs — designs which existed as a means of commenting on the way people co-exist with products in our society, in order to inspire other designers in the process. What ends up happening is, "While designing products with deeply positive experiences they detail the nuances on the product side of the interaction, but mostly ignore the nuances on the users side". Hence questioning which emotional experiences are actually truly enjoyable in the specific context of it's use. "As a consequence of years of mis-interpreting a "good/positive experience" designers still rely heavily on the basic assumption that all 'positive experiences' are pleasant and hence suitable for product experiences, and all "negative experiences" are unpleasant, and hence unsuitable to be included in their designs."



This raised the question, why do we as humans and users, continuously seek such extreme experiences? Why do we willingly expose ourselves to negative experiences despite knowing the outcomes, or how it would make us feel? Well, Dunne and Raby narrowed it down to 3 reasons; a. A Utilitatrian Viewpoint, b. The Aftermath Explanation, or c. The Intensity Explanation.

The Utilitarian Viewpoint stands on the grounds that they (the users) expect the activity to be beneficial in the long run, or if they're aiming to overcome something. For example, when people use shrilling sounds for their alarm clock ringtones, the noise disrupts their sleep - but the end goal is that the user had to wake up, which has been achieved. This is a great example of an everyday mundane task through which a product fuels a negative reaction to gain a positive response within their users. A limitation, however, of this viewpoint is that it only caters to activities that have a purpose. It doesn't explain why people enjoy negative experiences whose sole purpose is to entertain (eg. rollercoasters/horror films)


The Aftermath explanation picks up on what the previous point lacks. This explains that the negative emotions are taken for granted, as the user expects the aftermath — the positive emotions, that make the negative journey worth it, and more enjoyable. For example, the fear a skyjumper has while jumping off that plane (anxiety, fear, etc.) but it's all worth it when they're freefalling and have the adrenaline pumping through. The pleasant enjoyment of the moment after the jump makes the fear tolerable; a small price to pay.

Finally, the Intensity explanation says that some people are able to successfully inhibit the fear - sensation seekers - or it's no longer frightening but pleasant. They've learnt to ignore the dangers that would prevent others from doing it; they are the thrill seekers. A great example are those who love watching horror movies, or racing bikes and doing activities that are regularly deemed 'risky'. Fun fact: In a study done by Andrade and Cohen (On the consumption of Negative feelings), they observed how when fans watched horror movies, they experiences a stimulus occurrence of positive and negative feelings at the same time, the most 'fearful' scenes, were clearly perceived to be the most pleasant ones. This highlights the false connotation around negative experiences as being termed unpleasant.


So how can we make the experiences we designed better? The part of the equation that may have been missing are the conditions under which these experiences have been experienced. These so called "Protective frames" herd and create the ultimate environment for these experiences. A 'safety-zone' frame that can be achieved by spatial distancing (eg. far from a cliff or touch a wild animal with a stick instead of your actual hand), adding 'detachment zones' which allow users to enjoy the event as long as they aren't participating in it (eg. books, films, events to view), possibly even adding 'control' frames which control the amount of interactions with the negative stimuli. The users are in the so-called 'danger/trauma zone' but are confident they have the necessary skills (physical or mental) to protect themselves in case of anything. Lastly, a 'perspective' frame helps to change the meaning of the experienced emotion by providing a window to the wider implications of the situation. Connecting the negative stimulus to a larger, universal "humane" theme. Honestly, a protective frame is the core reason why people enjoy such negative experiences. This 'protective' frame is a "mental construct that enables people to create a certain psychological distance between themselves and the object of their emotion."


Let's reimagine everyday products, experiences and interactions to create a richer experience delivery that mimics real world experiences. What are a few products you think deliver these kinds of expeirences, and what are few that we can redesign, with a richer product experience in mind?




We're always open to other perspectives, opinions, and a good chat over some coffee or tea. We'd love to host a conversation with you, head on over to our Discord and get in touch!

With 🧡 Team WID.


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