The Gift of Inconvenience

If our products and experiences are made inconvenient by design, will they yield better outcomes?

Have you bought something lately that’s more difficult to use than other comparable products on the market? Several companies are foregoing basic design principles like ease of use and accessibility, instead making their products more cumbersome on purpose. By next year Volvo will install safety mechanisms that slow their cars down and in extreme cases even pull over to alert emergency services if you’re drunk, distracted or just driving badly. Apple’s new suite of screen time management tools for iPhones are designed to limit your app use and block access when you reach your time limit. Argentinian company Tulipán created a limited edition Consent Pack line of condoms that can only be opened when four hands, or two people, pull on the edges simultaneously.

By making it harder to drive, go online or have sex, these seemingly counterintuitive tactics stress the importance of safe driving, digital wellness and sexual consent over faster, better, stronger products. What’s right isn’t always convenient, and what’s convenient isn’t always right.

Tim Wu, author of The Curse of Bigness, analyzes our complicated relationship with things designed for our ease and comfort. “Though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning to life.”

For the better part of this century, businesses have peddled the notion of convenience as their cornerstone. Amazon built an entire empire around it in less than two decades. But the same on-demand economy we thought would solve the world’s problems has spawned more. It may be easier now to hail a cab, order food or assemble your furniture. But the people riding those cars, delivering your goods and running your personal errands often find themselves overworked and without benefits or protections. One first-person account from a U.S. Postal Service employee revealed, “we deliver Amazon packages until we drop dead.”

More often than not, on-demand companies that espouse access and flexibility hurt the industries they disrupt, affect social interaction, worsen our carbon footprint and operate based on questionable business models. They’re convenient with an asterisk. Volvo’s and Apple’s inconvenient innovations swing the pendulum the other way, encouraging us to consider how the objects we use impact us. If our products and experiences are made inconvenient by design, will they yield better outcomes?

The tourism board of the Faroe Islands thinks so. They’re closing major local sights to general tourists over one weekend, instead inviting them to join the “Faroese Maintenance Crew” to help create walking paths and construct viewpoints. By making itself temporarily inaccessible, the archipelago emphasizes the scarcity and value of its unique landscape. The “closed for maintenance, open for voluntourism” campaign encourages visitors to understand the effects of overtourism, and help preserve one of the most pristine places on Earth.

The New York Times campaign “The Truth Is Worth It” expressly acknowledges the inconvenience of its news subscription model. Quality journalism is critical to democracy but difficult to deliver without resources or support. The campaign spotlights the immense effort that the Times invests in upholding its reporting, ultimately implying that the truth is worth paying for.

We’re curious to see how brands apply this emerging law of diminishing marginal convenience. Holding all other factors constant, there’s a point at which the marginal benefit derived from the convenience of using something will decrease. What else could intentionally be made harder to do, to help us become more thoughtful? Taking long showers, throwing things away, smoking, driving to work, eating processed meat — the list goes on. Businesses and institutions with an eye toward balancing doing well with doing good have realized that work worth doing is inconvenient. If we want to challenge relentless consumption in a time of dwindling resources, inconvenience needs to be repositioned as a virtue to send a powerful message.

This post was written by Shivani Gorle with thinking contributed by Dylan Stiga and Brendan Crain. ThoughtMatter is a creative branding, design and strategy studio in New York City’s Flatiron District. Find us on Twitter.