The Dangers of Designing for Convenience over Resilience

He rode carefully down the snow-slush streets of Manhattan, the steaming tupperware of Thai curry hanging off his handlebars in a plastic bag. He was almost there, but he’d seen a fellow bike-delivery-guy fall just a few blocks up. After this he’d ride home some hundred or so blocks, but at least there would be no potential of spilled curry. I had just opened my fridge to grab some water when he buzzed up. My fridge spelled abundance for me: vegetables waiting to be cooked, leftovers waiting to be reheated. Instead, I walked to the door and exchanged a couple dollars and words for the food, disappearing back into my cozy apartment.

The blue bike that gives

A few months ago, I visited a human-centered-design and innovation studio on the forty-somethingth floor in Manhattan for a tour of their space. They began by telling us stories about the humans they design for — “New Yorkers like to have their grocery inside their apartment before they’ve realized they’re out of kale,” they proudly said, showing off how well they understood these humans they were designing for.

The tour continued and then I saw the bike. Painted bright blue, it was mounted to the wall on the other side of the studio, ever ready to deliver kale, Thai curry and convenience to the doorsteps of our abundant fridges. None of the humans that the studio was designing for, ever got on a bike to deliver steaming Thai curry to a cozy apartment. They were the fridge-abundance-experiencing Thai curry takers and the definition of design and innovation for whom was as simple as: over-convenience. And, in the process of over-conveniencing the Thai curry takers, the bike-riding-human experienced under-convenience.

I tried to remember what my Thai-curry delivery man had looked like, I realized that I couldn’t recall if I had even looked. I just knew that the blue bike could bring me food even if I didn’t necessarily need it.

Taking it for granted

A few months later, I visited friends in Geneva. They had recently moved from London and were adjusting to life in a city that was slightly slower, where cafes closed early, and food delivery cost more than the food itself. That evening, we spotted a man wearing a big cubed backpack — the kind that food delivery humans carry around. My friends’ eyes lit up. “Uber Eats?,” one of them said, excitedly.

I had been visiting from Brooklyn. My lived experience was so deeply embedded in the over-convenience of Seamless, Amazon Now, and free food delivery from my neighborhood restaurants, that I couldn’t even register their excitement. What had I been judging the innovation studio for? I loved the blue bike. The blue bike made sure I never had to go hungry inside my cozy apartment, fridge full of food, during a snowstorm.

Designing for Resilience

Today’s human centered design process leans too strongly towards removing all kinds of discomfort for the user it is trying to serve. This is why, somewhere along this post I defined design & innovation as over-convenience. I wonder if that is, indeed, the right way to design. Must design welcome user discomfort to build resilience in the user? Must design consider discomfort as a driver for positive behavior?

I was living in lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy and experienced the 4 day blackout. I had heard that grocery stores and gas stations had experienced long lines of people on-edge, in preparation for the storm. An over-abundant city was preparing for an imminent shortage of stuff. As I took baths with my pots and pans in my pitch dark bathroom, with water boiled on my gas [phew] stove, I thought back to my childhood in India, where I would spend days on end without electricity, even though back then I was still a “Thai curry taker”. We were not used to over-abundance and this is what made us more prepared and more resilient. We had buckets for baths, we always had candles and torch lights, but more than anything else we had resilience. The cars in my pitch black hometown had learned how to drive on roads without the safety net of traffic and street lights; but I watched the taxis in Manhattan struggle during the blacked-out evenings.

One of the first teachings of high school Economics class is that our resources are limited, so how is it that we have been able to design for over-abundance and over-convenience? It is because we trade the under-convenience of the Thai curry server for the over-convenience of the Thai curry taker?

The bike is everywhere. It is the workers of the Amazon warehouses. It is marginalized and colonized communities. It is Latin American, African and Asian countries, also known as developing countries [but maybe we want to re-think that diction too]. It is our environment, nature and planet. It serves and we take.

Along with thinking of the positive consequences from the click of a button, we must also be cognizant of the resilience building opportunities the button suffocates. And not even for all the “right” reasons of being more inclusive and sharing our privilege with the food delivery guys. I say this because we have been consuming convenience for so long — so long, that the likelihood of the Amazon warehouse worker, the developing countries and our planet erupting into wars, riots and hurricanes, is growing.

For our own selfish reasons, we must design building blocks of resilience into our products and services in the form of user discomforts and consequence. Not only will it increase our resilience, it might begin to make the serving and taking a two-way street, so that the blue bike isn’t always the first one to go hungry and cold, even though it has steaming tupperwares of Thai curry hanging off the handlebars.