A new line of intentionally irritating products aims to encourage more responsible decision making
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Matthew Hollister
Anyone who has stubbed a toe on a doorjamb knows the malevolence that lurks in inanimate objects, and the impotent rage these things inspire in their victims. It might seem unwise, then, to design household items with the intention of introducing even more annoyance into our lives. But that is precisely what we are getting with Pleasurable Troublemakers, a new line of products that aims to make us better people via a concept that might be termed inspirational irritation.
Pleasurable Troublemakers is the work of a group of European psychologists and designers who’ve latched onto the notion of “persuasive technologies” (think seat-belt alarms and, more obliquely, the too-tight jeans we buy to compel ourselves to lose weight). The idea is that household objects can be more than persuasive—they can make us question our decisions. They can be transformative.
The team behind this enterprise, which emerged from the Design department at Germany’s Folkwang University of Arts in Essen, has been working on it since 2010 and currently has more than 15 products either completed or under development. A representative example is the Keymoment, a pivoted rack that holds car keys and the keys for a bicycle lock at opposite ends. Grab the car key and the bike key will drop to the floor, forcing you to pick it up. Theoretically, as you stand there with both keys in your hands, you will give further consideration to the healthier, eco-friendlier option.
“The idea is that small irritations jolt us into alternative actions,” explains Matthias Laschke, part of the Pleasurable Troublemakers team. “Physical objects have the power to modify our behavior without us even noticing.”
Another item designed by Laschke and his fellow gadflies is the Forget Me Not, a reading lamp whose “petals” slowly close unless it is tapped by the user—thereby provoking “a constant dialogue about whether she still needs the given light.” Then there’s the Never Hungry Caterpillar, an extension cord that wriggles—“awkwardly, as if in pain”—when you neglect to unplug appliances on energy-sapping standby.
“Obviously, it isn’t super-difficult to cheat these designs,” Laschke admits. “But tests repeatedly show that as soon as people know they can cheat a system, they usually don’t, because they know they’re only cheating themselves. We’re giving them the chance to rewrite what happens next at a specific moment.”
Laschke is keen to distinguish his designs from the slew of wearable life-enhancing gizmos out there—like the daily activity and fitness trackers Fitbit and Jawbone—that measure what we’re doing but don’t really invite us to do better. “Technology doesn’t apply psychology,” he says. “Technology alone just enables us to be bombarded by data that we’ll tire of or abstract targets we soon ignore.” Far more effective, he insists, is ReMind, his anti-procrastination clock. If you don’t get around to doing what you set out to do, its markers tumble onto the floor, one by one, so you can literally see your tasks mount up in front of you.
A new report by the tech consultancy Endeavour Partners claims that more than 50 percent of Americans who own digital health trackers no longer use them; one-third ditch them within six months. Products that “fail to have a meaningful impact on users’ habits—such as a tracker that provides data but doesn’t inspire action—end up failing,” the report concludes.
The report is good news for Laschke, who is in talks with several tech companies keen to integrate digital innovation with his analog irritants. (Keymoment and the Never Hungry Caterpillar, he says, are prime candidates for apps.) Meanwhile, Laschke is continuing to look for ways to apply these principles outside the home, such as elevators that stop on unrequested floors in a bid to make employees “choose” to resume their journey via the stairs. And once they get to the office, those employees can make use of another Pleasurable Troublemakers product: the Chocolate Machine, which drops a treat onto your desk every hour and counts the number of times you put it back instead of scarfing it down.
“Again, it is all psychology,” Laschke says. “There must be a visible reward.”
Berlin-based editor and writer Boyd Farrow is one of the pioneers of this field, having turned the telephone into an irritant by calling his editor.