The Benefits of Inconvenience: Taking Another Look at Modern Society’s Pursuit of Convenience

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Human society has continually pursued convenience. But inconvenience can be useful, and researchers have been studying its benefits.

Taking A Look at the Benefits of Inconvenience 

Can there be benefits to inconvenience? Convenience is generally defined as the state of being able to do something unthinkingly and with little effort. Human beings have single-mindedly pursued efficiency and automation for their purported benefits. Accordingly, seeking the benefits of inconvenience may sound like a contradictory pursuit. But in fact, inconvenience may end up being good—or even necessary.

I study the benefits of inconvenience, and my book Fuben’eki no susume (In Praise of the Benefits of Inconvenience) was published this spring. My aim in writing the book was to reach out to digital natives and make them pause to think that there might be some benefits to inconvenience that they had never imagined. This isn’t a novel approach. The theme of a 2017 design competition sponsored by the Kansai block of the Japan Industrial Designers’ Association was “Inconvenient Design: Products That Let Us Enjoy the Process.” The theme of the 2018 competition was “Design at the Intersection of Inconvenience and Food.” I was both surprised and happy when officials from the association approached me with the idea of making inconvenience and its benefits the theme of their competitions, and as they discussed their ideas, I began to understand their approach. Industrial designers also feel there’s something not quite right about designing objects for mere convenience, so they chose competition themes calling for good products with some inconvenience built in.

I belong to a group of researchers that studies the benefits of inconvenience. Our group has received research grants from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science on several occasions since 2006. The grant adjudicators apparently recognized that inconvenience does have advantages, since they approved use of taxpayer money for our research. Our findings were published in the journal of the Society of Instrument and Control Engineers and a 2017 book based on our research, Fuben’eki: Tema o kakeru shisutemu no dezain (The Benefits of Inconvenience: Cumbersome System Design). Kindai Kagaku Sha, the publisher of this book, is handling the next edition of Jinkō chinō AI jiten (The Dictionary of Artificial Intelligence), edited by the Japanese Society for Artificial Intelligence, which will be appearing soon. This dictionary will include an entry on the benefits of inconvenience.

Test Equipment Raises Questions 

One of my fellow researchers creates inconvenient test equipment. Professor Nishimoto Kazushi of the Japan Institute of Advanced Science and Technology, who studies technologies for assisting humans, describes his field as researching how making things difficult can paradoxically support people. His research group developed a word processor that employs the Gestalt Imprinting Method (G-IM) for inputting kanji. G-IM sometimes inserts mistaken kanji into text being input, and then prevents the file from being saved unless the user detects and corrects the mistakes. His experiment established that users forget fewer kanji with the G-IM system.

Professor Nakatani Yoshio, now president of Ritsumeikan University, headed a research laboratory at the same university where he created an experimental sightseeing navigation system that deliberately gives only vague route directions and few helpful details. Having little information to go on is usually inconvenient, but in the case of travel, the system can give new meaning to the activity of sightseeing. It drives home the point that you will miss things as you stroll along if you spend all your time looking down at your phone to follow directions. This inconvenient navigation system showed that visitors looking straight ahead can make unexpected discoveries and form more lasting memories of their travels.

Professor Okada Michio of the Toyohashi University of Technology studies robots that encourage forming relationships with humans. He has developed so-called “weak” robots, one of which is a wastebasket robot. A “convenient” robot developed to replace humans would scoot over to a piece of trash and use its arm to pop the trash into its wastebasket. But Professor Okada’s robot approaches a piece of trash and simply circles it helplessly. Once a human being comes along, picks up the trash, and places it in the robot’s wastebasket, the robot bows its thanks. You might think that’s an inconvenient robot, one that expects humans to do its job—the very opposite of robot vacuums that clean when humans aren’t around. But the very inconvenience of wastebasket robots can yield insights into the ideal forms of communication between robots and humans.

Guaranteed Benefits of Inconvenience

In 2017, I wrote a book with a very long title: Gomen nasai, moshi anata ga chotto demo ikizumari o kanjite iru nara, fuben o toriirete mite wa dō desu ka? Fuben’eki to iu hassō (The Idea of the Benefits of Inconvenience: If You’re Feeling that You’ve Reached a Dead End, Try Something Inconvenient). The president of Mishima, my book’s publisher, came up with the idea for the title. He felt that readers would get a better idea of the book’s essence from a long and inconvenient title rather than from something short and superficial. He wanted them to think, “Oh, that book about the benefits of inconvenience. I get it.”

I view that book as one for general readers. I wanted commuters to pick it up casually at a train station bookstore and read it on the way to work, to see for themselves that inconvenience is important or even essential in their workplaces. I also hoped they would recommend it to their older colleagues. The book gives several examples of existing items or practices that I call “guaranteed benefits of inconvenience,” to prepare readers to start thinking of things that may be inconvenient but beneficial.

For example, an operator of daycare services for seniors espouses a “with barriers” philosophy. Rather than its facilities being barrier-free for effortless daily living, they incorporate minor barriers, such as stairs. These barriers are also good training for the facilities’ staff, who learn how to watch over clients and only intervene when necessary. Another example is a Tokyo kindergarten’s outdoor play area with an uneven surface. The dips and bumps may cause children to stumble more, causing a few more scrapes and slowing them down. But they take this barrier in stride, playing energetically on a surface that’s closer to a natural field. These examples demonstrate that inconvenience can have benefits.

Inconvenience Makes Travel Memorable

My first book on the benefits of inconvenience, Fuben kara umareru dezain: Kōgaku ga ikasu jōshiki o koeta hassō (Design Born from Inconvenience: Engineering Off-the-wall Ideas), came out in 2011. In this book, I laid out a systematic approach to designing objects or processes that are inconvenient but beneficial to their users. It’s a difficult book that discusses the mechanisms through which inconvenience gives benefits. Let me give you an example. My hometown of Izumo, in Shimane Prefecture, is really off the beaten path. Izumo Taisha shrine, a favored spot for those seeking luck in love, is located there. Shimane can only be reached by overnight train from Tokyo, so the long trip builds anticipation. Therefore, the inconvenient location makes the trip much more memorable, and the possible benefit of finding a life partner all the more appreciated, than if the shrine were just an hour away.

Similar examples abound. One apocryphal explanation commonly shared in Japan says that the English words “travel” and “trouble” have the same etymology. I can say from personal experience that it’s often the case that minor troubles, or inconveniences, crop up during a trip. I’ve never owned a smartphone, and I don’t use one when I’m traveling on business either. This invariably means that I will encounter some problem along the way, for example, going back and forth along the same street trying to find my hotel in a city I’m visiting for the first time. It’s annoying, but on the other hand, I can still recall street names and the atmosphere of the place, thanks to the 5 or 10 minutes I spent looking for my hotel. I’ve followed my nose when I’m looking for a bar to go to by myself. I can usually find a good place that way, although I’ve had a few unfortunate experiences—which, again, I clearly remember. If I had a smartphone and just walked around following a map app or a customer review site, I would follow its suggestions. It’s inconvenient not to have those apps, but on the other hand, every mundane business trip turns into a journey.

I would finally mention Kyōto henjin kōza (Courses in Kyoto Eccentrics), published in 2019. This book is a compilation of public lectures launched in 2017 on the idea that at Kyoto University, being called an eccentric is a compliment. The benefits of inconvenience make their appearance in this book, too, which highlights that a culture encouraging the study of abstruse subjects like mine is alive and well at Kyoto University.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 10, 2019. Banner photo: Trashcan robots developed by Professor Okada Michio of the Toyohashi University of Technology. These inconvenient robots can yield insights into ideal robot-human communication. Photo © Kawamoto Seiya.)

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