The Consequences of Convenience

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

History has taught us that the impact of a product can reach far beyond the product itself, and in some instances can cause more harm than good. Let’s take a look at a few examples to understand the cost we pay for convenience. 

TV Dinners
TV dinners were a mid-century cultural sensation. They saved time when it came to shopping, cooking, and cleaning, and were affordable for families across the U.S. But these frozen meals came at a cost much higher than their grocery store price tag. Author Franklin Foer explains some of their negative impacts: 

“Processed foods were feats of engineering, all right — but they were engineered to make us fat. Their delectable taste required massive quantities of sodium and sizable stockpiles of sugar…It took vast quantities of meat and corn to fabricate these dishes, and a spike in demand remade American agriculture at a terrible environmental cost. A whole new system of industrial farming emerged, with penny-conscious conglomerates cramming chickens into feces-covered pens and stuffing them full of antibiotics.”[1]

Without knowing, our embrace for these seemingly harmless frozen meals were transforming the health of our bodies and planet in hurtful and lasting ways.   

The Keurig Coffee Maker
Keurig machines were designed to deliver better-tasting, faster-making cups of coffee for office workers.[2] These machines became so popular that eventually they were found in businesses and homes everywhere. Pre-measured plastic coffee pods are popped into the machine, and in just a few minutes your single-serve hot beverage is ready to enjoy. But these non-recyclable plastic pods have accumulated in great numbers over the years, and now overflow our landfills. John Hocevar, campaign director from Greenpeace USA states “Coffee pods are one of the best examples of unnecessary single-use plastics that are polluting our planet. Many end up getting incinerated, dumping poison into our air, water and our soil.”[3]

Keurig, which earned 11.2 billion in annual revenue in 2019[4], has committed to 100% recyclable pods by the end of 2020[5]. However, the environmental damage has already been done. A viral video highlighting the negative impacts of coffee pods drives this message home when it reveals “In 2014, enough K-Cups were sold that if placed end-to-end, they would circle the globe 10.5 times.”[6]

The Smartphone
Our smartphones have become so much more than just phones. They are our photo albums, GPS navigators, weather forecasters, and personal assistants. We ask them questions, and they answer back. The security we use to unlock them is more advanced than that of our homes. They have become so deep-seated in our lives that they are impossible to live without, yet invisible in the ways they have transformed us.

For all the benefits they provide us, they come at a high cost to human and environmental issues. In offering insight into such facts, author Adam Greenfield describes the working conditions of Chinese factories where smartphones are assembled:

“These factories operate under circumstances that are troubling at best. Hours are long; the work is numbingly repetitive, produces injuries at surreal rates, and often involves exposure to toxic chemicals. Wages are low and suicide rates among the workforce are distressingly high.” [7]

Greenfield also breaks down some of the environmental damage our phones are causing:

“The damage caused by the processes of extraction fans out across most of a hemisphere, mutilating lives, human communities and natural ecosystems beyond ready numbering. And so the polluted streams, stillborn children and diagnoses of cancer, too, become part of the way in which the smartphone has transformed everyday life, at least for some of us.“[8]

Despite their convenience in our lives, smartphones have proven to cause irreparable harm on a global scale.  

In addition to the slew of unintended negative consequences, these products all share the commonality that their ease of use and seamless integration make them examples of successful design. But, is designing for convenience and usability enough? As the creative thinkers and makers of our society and planet, these products have made it clear that what we make goes beyond the object itself and spans the globe. In the book Design Research: Methods and Perspectives, Nathan Shedroff states: “We can’t afford to be blind to human social contexts when applying technology to the solving of problems, partly because technologies may introduce new (and worse) problems, and partly because technologies are rarely the important part of a solution. Usually, various forms of human behavior have a bigger influence on a design’s impact or acceptance.”[9] 

As the designers solving new problems, we could benefit from imagining the many ways (good and bad) in which our creations can transform society now and in decades ahead. By contemplating and examining the lasting footprint of the things we make, we can more consciously consider the value in our work and the direction we wish to take it. 

 [1] Franklin, F. (2017, September 8). How Silicon Valley is Erasing Your Individuality. The Washington Post. Perspective Section.

[2] Hamblin, J. (2015, March 2). A Brewing Problem. The Atlantic.

[3] Brown, D. (2019, March 13). K-Cups and Coffee Capsules: Is Your Quick Java Fix Killing the Environment? USA Today.

[4] Keurig Dr. Pepper Reports Strong 4th Quarter and Full Year Results. Keurig Dr. Pepper.

[5] Recycling is a Big Deal at Keuring. Keurig.

[6] Hamblin, J. (2015, March 2). A Brewing Problem. The Atlantic.

[7] Greenfield, A. (2017, June). A Sociology of the Smartphone. Excerpt obtained from Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield. 2018. Verso. 

[8] Greenfield, A. (2017, June). A Sociology of the Smartphone. Excerpt obtained from Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life by Adam Greenfield. 2018. Verso. 

[9] Nathan S. Research Methods for Designing Effective Experiences In Design Research: Methods and Perspectives. Edited by Laurel, B. London: The MIT Press.

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