Design for Difficult Contexts – The Imperative of Functionality and the Uses of Pleasure


Designing for difficult contexts—for situations where a product or interface is serving users in heightened emotional states or positions of physical or sociopolitical vulnerability—presents particular challenges to the designer. Literature on the issue stresses the importance of ensuring that general usability principles are part of the design process (e.g., functionality, flow, aesthetics, task success, and user satisfaction), as well as working with additional measures and guidelines based in previous research and user feedback (e.g., pleasure, meaning, and measures in alignment with care-expert best practices) to guide designing for these special contextual environments.

Although user experience is always central to good design, for projects falling into this category it is of crucial importance. Designing for difficult contexts requires that the designer be sensitive to user perspective in order to create designs that facilitate task success—because the design may impact significant life conditions, such as user ability to navigate needed healthcare resources or basic food and water. Attending to design’s role in functionality as well as design’s contribution to user experiences of pleasure and empowerment can both help users to utilize tools effectively and impact their mental and emotional well-being. Design can help empower in moments of powerlessness.

Real-world examples of these types of design projects demonstrate principles that can help designers work toward better, more pleasurable, and more empowering designs. Four approaches that designers can incorporate that are particularly useful to these contexts include: (1) empathy and attentiveness to the emotional context of users; (2) sensitivity to the physical and sociopolitical vulnerabilities and constraints of users; (3) incorporating into the design process expert perspectives from those who support these populations in other areas; and (4) contributing to the comfort and empowerment of users through generating pleasurable user experiences.

1) Centering Empathy

Centering empathy means attending to special populations’ probable experiences and points of view—trying to understand the kinds of feelings and past experiences that might shape their experience of a design even before they have encountered it. For example, designers creating funeral planning apps need to select colors and imagery appropriate to their users’ emotional state (see image from Funeral360 below); designers creating apps for coping with dementia need to keep in mind that they are not only designing tools that facilitate specific tasks, but also that facilitate broader support for their life conditions (as demonstrated in design brief from a UK Health Service design challenge call for proposals below):

“Living Well with Dementia” Design Challenge Design Brief (UK)


Funerals360 Funeral Planning Tool (web browser version)


2) Recognizing Physical & Sociopolitical Vulnerabilities

Vulnerabilities related to user contexts, physical, socio-political, or otherwise, also need to inform the design process for these contexts. For example, though apps have the potential to play a useful role in refugee/asylum situations because many persons in migration carry cellphones with them, this context requires special sensitivity—particularly to issues of vulnerability to environmental and sociopolitical factors, limited data or cell-service access, and the need to protect identity information. The Red Cross’s Refugee Buddy app and UNHCR Services Advisor app are two examples that incorporate this design sensitivity, as they are designed to help direct refugees to needed services without requiring identifying information:

Refugee Buddy App

Services Advisor App


3) Incorporating Expert Perspectives

In order to be sensitive to the specific needs of users who would utilize the app/product/interface, it’s imperative that designers work with experts in the relevant fields they are designing for who can provide best-practice recommendations to support these populations. In design for physical or mental health-related services/tools, this may require input and testing on usability from physicians and care-giver experts, as well as target users, in order to reach successful and appropriate designs. For example, the designers at Mad-Pow studio have developed guideline recommendations for incorporating expert medical advice into multiple design stages of mental health apps and websites:

Mad-Pow Designers “H.E.A.L.T.H.” Guidelines for Designing for Mental Health

4) Acknowledging the Role of Design in Pleasure, Empowerment, and Meaning-Making

It is widely acknowledged by design theorists that the experience of pleasure has a key role to play in design. In his book, The Design of Everyday Things, influential usability expert Don Norman underscores the interrelationships between emotion and design, citing the importance of pleasure, saying, “the total experience of a product covers much more than its usability: aesthetics, pleasure, and fun play critically important roles” (p. xiii). Pleasure as a factor of user experience has a particularly significant role in designing for difficult contexts. Users are likely to be coming from experiences that involve pain, sadness, loss, disempowerment, and other highly stressful, highly negative experiences; designs that take into account both meeting users’ task-based needs and also providing a realm in which they may be able to experience satisfaction, hope, beauty, escape, or pleasure offer a very important resource to the human beings going through these experiences. Pleasure may or may not be directly articulated in the design specifications for these projects, but it is a design goal with the potential to make tremendous impact on the lives of people.





Design for difficult contexts presents special design challenges. Looking to successful previous project examples for models, such as in the four categories of examples outlined above, can help designers who are new to design for difficult contexts navigate the specific needs of these projects. By centering empathy, recognizing that users are likely to be coming to the website, app, or other product already in a heightened emotional state or in a condition of pain, stress, sadness, and/or fear, by attending to the physical and sociopolitical vulnerabilities of users, by incorporating input from care experts knowledgable about the users’ context and needs, and by attending to the crucial importance of designs that can contribute to pleasure and empowerment, designers can be well-prepared to meet these challenges. Ultimately, good design in difficult contexts can help people make meaning when other aspects of experience may feel meaningless, feel empowered when they may feel powerless, feel pleasure in the face of pain. Good design in difficult contexts can be a form of care for others.


Norman, D. A. (1990). The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday.

Design Critique: The FOIA Electronic Reading Room of the CIA [website] (Or: Better Design as a Key Issue in Public Access to Government Information)


The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) FOIA Electronic Reading Room ( is a section of the CIA’s overall website dedicated to providing public access to CIA documents that have been released under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and/or other information release mechanisms. This section of their website hosts a number of digital/scanned agency records and provides access to these records to the public via links and search tools. Where some federal US agencies provide only static lists of agency documents in their FOIA Electronic Reading Rooms (see, for example, the FOIA Library website of the Department of Justice), the CIA has an interface that is intended to provide more sophisticated search options to facilitate document access.

Background on FOIA Electronic Reading Rooms

Electronic Reading Rooms that provide copies of agency records to the public have been required of US federal government executive-branch agencies since the amendments to US FOIA law in 1996. Known as the Electronic Freedom of Information Act or E-FOIA, these amendments were an extensive re-working of FOIA to accommodate new technology, address concerns that electronic agency records might be getting destroyed or lost, and address new potentialities for providing public access to government information through then-emerging digital circulation technologies. Executive-branch government agencies were mandated to provide access to their most frequently requested documents via the Internet through this amended law, with the lawmakers’ intention to improve the public’s ability to access records that had already undergone declassification review and release — though this vision of greater access is not yet fully realized in practice on many federal agencies’ websites.[1] The CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room is one effort toward compliance with this law.

Design Critique Focus: Document Search Functions

Though a full review of the comprehensive CIA Internet presence could provide interesting feedback for potential website re-design, the design critique below focuses on elements related to searching for CIA documents and how design elements of the currently configured CIA FOIA Electronic Reading Room might better facilitate user experience in government information accessibility.


The website’s document search interface has several successful attributes. The general design and functionality choice of offering users several different search tools — a general keyword search bar which searches based on the full text of the documents, an “Advanced Search” screen that presents the user with multiple options for searching different aspects of CIA documents based on document metadata (for example, date, title, original classification level, etc.) and a “FOIA Category Search” which lets users access subsets of documents by document categories — gives users who want to examine the records of the CIA a good array of choices for discovering their records of interest. However, the site’s functionality could be greatly improved through a usability evaluation and re-design. In the search interface, four elements are particularly in need of improvement — three within the different forms of search navigation and the fourth in the search results interface. The discoverability issues in these interfaces generally fall into the categories of unclear signifiers and inadequate feedback.


Critique 1: Signifier Issues in Left Sidebar / Navigation

One design element where signifiers are unclear is in the left-hand sidebar navigation list of links. The left-hand sidebar would benefit from having more clearly defined link titles and separating links into subgroups by their purpose. Currently, the links under the “Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room” sidebar section include both links to pages of information about CIA’s FOIA processing itself, such as “How to File a FOIA Request,” and links to highly requested subsets of actual agency records. This mixing is likely to cause confusion for users. The recommended design change to resolve this issue would be to create subsections within the left-hand sidebar that would clearly demarcate and separate links to pages of general FOIA/”How to” information from links to pages of frequently requested CIA records.


Critique 2: Signifier Term-Destination Confusion in “Advanced Search” 

The “Click here” terminology at the top of the Advanced Search page of the site could cause confusion for the end user because what the on-screen text indicates as the destination of the link does not match the actual link destination. On this screen the user has already navigated to the Advanced Search options, yet text directly under the page title states “Click here for Advanced” (where “here” is a hyperlink) and then, on a separate line underneath, “Search Help.” The link implies it will take the user to even more advanced CIA agency record search options but it instead navigates to the user help page on advanced searching. This is likely a simple programming error that introduced separation between the two lines, as the intention of the link would seem to be to guide users to help tools. A recommendation to improve this interface would be to choose a less text-based, more icon-based symbol to indicate that pages of help tools are available to users — such as circle containing a question mark or letter “i” with explanations on mouse hover that their links offer access to help pages — and utilize that symbol to facilitate navigation to help tools throughout the site. 

Critique 3: FOIA Category Search Screen — Unclear Terminology/Signifiers

On the FOIA Category Search screen, the category terms displayed through which to reach subsets of CIA records are likely not intuitive for users. These assume high levels of user familiarity with agency jargon and document handling. For example, the abbreviation “NIC” is frequently used but its meaning (National Intelligence Council) is left unexplained to the public user. In addition, date categories include “Release Date” and “Post Date” as two separate record set filters, yet how these dates are differentiated is left unclear. This area of the website would benefit from using clearer signifier terminology combined with additional information about each category provided to users on mouse rollover of the category terms. Developing clearer signifier terms through direct user feedback, such as through layperson focus groups, would be particularly useful in improving the design of this area of the site to better understand user expectations.

Critique 4: Search Results Page — Unclear Feedback & Options

A crucial aspect of the website needing improved design is the search results presentation. The current results presentation lists documents and collections in the center area of the page with sort and filter options in the right-hand sidebar. The presentation of the sort and filter options is difficult to read and navigate. Recommendations for improving this design include: changing the title of the results list from “FOIA” to “Search Results”; moving the indicator of the number of results (“Search found [x] items”) to the very top of the results list; moving the set of sort and filter options to the top of the results list (under the total number of results) and presenting these as expandable option sets, where the user could first understand at a glance that sort and filter options are available through indicators such as a brief phrase with an expandable menu/area, and users could then see the full options for filtering and sorting by activating these expandable areas; a differentiating background color or text color for the search/filter options versus actual results might also aid users.


Conclusions and Implications of the Design Critique

In his influential book, The Design of Everyday Things,[2] cognitive scientist and usability engineer Don Norman discusses the psychological phenomenon of “learned helplessness” (p.62) as it applies to design and usability. He describes learned helplessness in the design context as a state that may develop when a user is unable to complete a task multiple times, resulting in a sense of inability to ever complete the task. This can lead to the avoidance of attempting to complete it in future. Learned helplessness has particular dimensions in the context of access to government information — if the public experiences repeated failure when attempting to access the government agency records to which they have a legal right, they may be less likely to continue attempting to access records and give up in practice the information that they have the right to in theory. There are sociopolitical implications in the need for good design of public access tools to government information in a democratic system where design and technology can support citizen empowerment and government transparency. Improving the user experience of government information seekers could potentially result not only in improved access to information for the public but also increased citizen participation.


1. National Security Archive. “Most Agencies Falling Short on Mandate for Online Records” Mar 13, 2015.

2. Norman, D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Basic Books.