Thoughts on pain

Patrick Leahy
3 min readFeb 8, 2021

Last November physical pain became a constant part of my life. It happened first via a small operation and subsequent recovery, and then from a condition that was misdiagnosed several times before finding appropriate treatment. I’ve been in moderate to severe pain every day for over 3 months, with most of that pain in my head. I wanted to write about observations from this experience.

I’m guessing I’m not alone as a millennial in having my first experience with chronic pain recently. As a generation, we are approaching middle age. Our generation will soon have to deal with designing for an aging population because we will be that population ourselves.

Here are some observations from the last few months.

Pain lowered my cognitive load. It sapped my attention demanding that I focus more energy on the task at hand so I could compartmentalize the pain temporarily. I track my tasks and my hours spent, and I could see my productivity dip and my urge to distract myself increase. Long video calls went from exhausting to demoralizing. I would pour extra energy into note taking to keep myself focused only to be exhausted for my actual work. I’m a relatively productive person but pain made me feel like a failure for not keeping up with my normal pace.

Pain means more time on self care, less time on everything else. In a day without pain self-care was often “nice-to-have”, but those activities have since become must-haves that I need to function. In addition, I’ve had to spend many weekday hours seeking treatment. I’d estimate I’ve gotten work done at 50% of my normal rate, less at times.

One take away for myself is that accessibility needs to account for the cognitive disadvantage pain and age puts us at. Some of our users are experiencing this now regardless of what you design, and if you’re in healthcare there’s a good chance many of your users deal with these issues. How can we design experiences that account for the drop in cognitive load, that gently guide people using our products?

My father recently attempted and failed to schedule his COVID vaccination because the system was poorly designed for anyone and not at all designed with senior citizens in mind. In response David Sexton, a coworker who depends on accessible technologies on a daily basis, commented that the presence of accessibility “is life or death literally”. On a positive note, my father is a belligerent person, and this bravado led him to drive down to the vaccination site and complain about his crappy experience. They vaccinated him on the spot.

Former Apple designer and partner at Nielsen / Norman group Bruce Tognazzini said in a workshop I attended “It’s not a question of if you will become disabled, but when.” We should heed those words. Our generation needs to prepare for the fact that we will no longer be the tech savvy youngsters we’ve been for the last 20 years. Another generation will soon be in the drivers’ seat, filled with all the bluster and energy we once had. We will need them to help us create accessible products to help us navigate the world.

Finally, I want to acknowledge that though I’ve been doing my best to consider accessibility and bias in my choices as a designer for a while, this has opened up new realizations and added to my reading list. Add your favorite resources / articles / books in the comments.