Imagine an elevator that stops one floor before the one you selected, and then tells you to get out and take the stairs the rest of the way. Can you envision a lamp that only turns on when you slide your smartphone into it, thus preventing you from texting obsessively? Both are very real examples of items created by modern designers who are trying to counteract the modern culture of convenience. In an era where most people choose driving over biking, or watching TV instead of walking, designers such as Matthias Laschke are designing subtle interventions against laziness and comfort-seeking.
Laschke, a PhD student at Germany’s Folkwang University of the Arts, has been working with a team of students to design what he refers to “pleasurable troublemakers“; designs that are meant to make people stop and really consider their options during moments of choice, but don’t force people to do things against their will. For example, if people know that the elevator is going to stop one floor ahead of theirs, they can always punch the button for the next-highest floor, but it’s likely that many of them will get a bit of a kick out of being bullied by the elevator to get out and walk up 8-10 stairs for their own good.
Other designs, such as a stool that wobbles slightly when you sit on it, cause the user to stay physically active with constant mini-movements over the course of the day to adjust posture. This could be a good counterpart to a treadmill desk for those who are required to sit for long periods of time. People who spend most of their day sitting at a desk have the opportunity for constant, if subtle, physical movement during the workday, which is a great boon to those who might not have the will (or desire) to head out for a run or an hour at the gym after work.
One of the reasons these interventions are effective is that they’re automatic, and integrated into daily life. Public service adverts that encourage people to stop smoking and pedometers that log steps taken require participants to consciously take action. These passive designs modify behavior with subtle, small inconveniences that aren’t terribly daunting. “Quantified self technologies are just about information,” Laschke says. “It might tell you the number of steps taken or calories burned, but it doesn’t help you in the situation to behave differently. When you’re sitting on the couch, it’s still comfortable to watch TV.”
For those of us who aren’t terribly gifted in the willpower department, inconveniences such as these may be of great help in avoiding a future dystopia as imagined in Wall-E, where we’re all social media-addicted blobs floating around on ultra-comfy hovercrafts.