Why we should design tech for stress

Because real life is messy, challenging, and even tragic.
Our tech is great when things are going well, but what about when life is challenging, dangerous, or even tragic? (ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

Our digital technologies do a pretty good job of encouraging us when life is going well. Facebook celebrates our friendship anniversaries. Fitness trackers congratulate us on meeting our activity goals.

But what about when life is challenging, or even tragic?

Sara Wachter-Boettcher is a design consultant and co-author of Design for Real Life.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher (

She thinks designers need to spend less time focused on "delighting" users, and more time supporting them whatever their emotional state.

Designers want to "make experiences smooth and seamless or delightful, and that gets baked into the way design teams work," she says.

"When that happens it's really hard for them to focus on...the ways that stuff can go wrong".

Wachter-Boettcher points to her co-author, Eric Meyer's, deeply painful experience. His six year old daughter had died of an aggressive brain cancer. Months later, logging onto Facebook, he was faced with the social network's "Year in Review" feature.

"They inserted a picture of his daughter...because that was the most commented he had posted all year," Wachter-Boettcher explains.

"But of course, that wasn't something he wanted to celebrate, not in that way, but Facebook had made that decision for him and then surrounded it with...illustrations of people dancing at a party, and balloons, and streamers."

Wachter-Boettcher suggests designing for stress cases "so you can see: 'is this going to hold up in a variety of circumstances or not?'" she says.

"I don't want to pretend that it's not difficult, [to design for tough life situations] but I do think that it all starts with taking stock of: what are the things that you believe are true about your audience, and what if you're wrong?"


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