Skip to content

Bad News is the New Good News

Reflections on why "designing for bad news" is a thing, and how people bounce back from a letdown.

Words by Kyli Herzberg, Visuals by Delaney Gibbons

Turned down, let down, ignored. In a recent research study, dscout discovered just how often people receive bad news in a digital context. Maybe the price spiked before you bought it, or your balance fell below the minimum. And that latest friend request? Crickets.

We learned that people fail at their everyday activities more than half the time. In under a week, participants in our qualitative research shared 900 digital moments of bad news. Imagine all the non-digital moments of disappointment they didn’t share.

How is everyone not on antidepressants?

The UX of choice

One striking answer that came into focus was the idea of choice. And that choice is rarely answered with a simple “yes or no.”

With every piece of bad news, there is a cascade of new choices. The Plan Bs, Cs, Ds, and Es emerge. Of course it’s a bummer to pay 4x for the Uber ride. But we could take a bus instead. Sure, the AirBNB available in our ideal location is awfully expensive. But, affordable options exist further away.

When things don’t go our way, we’re forced to make quick choices and adapt. And that seems to happen at least once—and more often multiple times—every day.

Have we become master problem solvers and decision-makers, taking bad news in stride? After all, should our Plan A fall through, we probably have a back-up plan or two (or five):

Here’s the bad news: My grocery store is out of my favorite kind of Oreos. Here’s the good news: I can pick a different flavor. Or go to another store. Or order them online for delivery to my doorstep. Maybe I can go to my friend’s place and raid their pantry. If that’s not in the cards, I’ll channel Martha Stewart and make the cookies myself.

That bad news turned into good news, five times over.

When is a problem not a problem?

Is this process really an act of problem solving? Is it even a problem? Given the endless alternatives and avenues, we have a high likelihood of getting what we want (or some version of it). I might not get my mint Oreos at the store, as I had anticipated, but my Oreo craving will be satisfied one way or another (or another).

Often, bad news is temporary, only a hitch; we still get what we wanted, it's just by a different route. Bad news is the beginning of a path to see choices and judge their practicality.

I’m convinced that because we get what we want so often, our expectations have shifted upward. When one small thing doesn’t go as planned, like my favorite Oreos being out of stock at the corner store, we categorize it as bad news, and bad news is now categorized as something in need of altering. And perhaps this shift to a world filled with bad news in need of fixing, in itself, is kind of bad news.

But the good news, in this case, is that bad news is never really the end point. We’re able to bounce back. People keep trying. We’re not scared of failure to the point of paralysis, nor are we satisfied with getting bad news and not doing anything about it. We still look for the mint Oreos, knowing we’ll find them somewhere, somehow. We continue swiping right and striving to hit 10,000 steps, despite countless bad dates and missed goals, rolling with these softer punches because we know they matter less, and we know that there are alternatives within reach.

10,000 steps, Oreos, and the meaning of life

Often, we get what we want (or pretty close to it) and move forward. Because we persevere, things can be made better. At dscout, we help companies make things better for people by uncovering new ways to create better experiences. In this case, we learned how to design better "bad news" experiences and identified shorter paths to happiness. Because life may be full of choices, but who really wants to work that hard for a package of Oreos?

Subscribe To People Nerds

A weekly roundup of interviews, pro tips and original research designed for people who are interested in people

The Latest