Sometimes pain sneaks up on you. There’s no dramatic moment when something snaps or pops. You move through your normal daily routine without thinking about the small, but impactful choices you’re making. You ignore a nagging soreness as a temporary nuisance. Suddenly, you wake up one morning in pain. Unable to move like normal, you have to say something or do something about it.

No Pain, No Gain. Right?

In mid-September, I tore the labrum in my shoulder. Leading up to the appointment that confirmed the diagnosis, the surrounding muscle tensed up and shooting pain from my shoulder down to my elbow seized nearly all my attention. I couldn’t lift my elbow off my side more than 20 degrees in any direction. Ibuprofen was no match for the pain.

When the world went into quarantine earlier this year, I decided to invest my time and resources a little differently. I spent more time with my daughter, created a garden, read more books, and assembled a garage gym. The idea of working out at home had always been a draw. It’s hard to avoid working out when it’s 20 feet from the couch — not 20 minutes away by car.

With some dumbbells, a treadmill, and a 10×10 padded floor, I started routine high-intensity interval training. Over the past 3 months, I rarely missed a day of training. The feeling after pouring sweat for an hour in a summer garage became addictive. I needed it to relieve stress and feel physically productive after a day spent staring at my laptop screen.

But, there was something not quite okay about my left shoulder as time passed. It felt weaker than the right while pressing overhead. It would stay sore longer. I couldn’t get the same range of motion as the opposite arm. I chalked it up to an imbalance and figured I needed to keep pressing. No pain, no gain. Right?

Despite knowing that a proper warm up and cool down are helpful, I did neither of these things. I’d work hard for 45 or 60 minutes. Then, the idea of adding an extra 20 minutes for warming up, cooling down, and stretching seemed optional.

Then, one random weekday morning I woke up unable to lift my arm. As much as I wish there’d been a tough workout where I pushed too hard and heard something pop, that didn’t happen. Only in retrospect can I now piece together some evidence that helps me make sense of what happened.

Progressive Pain

In the customer experience / experience design field, we often talk about “pain points.” These are obstacles, annoyances, frustrations, or inconveniences that customers (or employees, stakeholders, users, etc.) encounter during a task they try to complete.

We use journey maps to plot the pain points along the customer’s flow and brainstorm opportunities to eliminate the friction and improve the experience. Often times, we talk about defining moments along the journey where companies have the opportunity to delight (provide something unexpected) or reduce friction (don’t screw up). Pain points and these moments are cast as acute or specific events that align to a step in the customer’s journey.

Yet, my shoulder injury experience prompted me to consider a different kind of customer experience pain. One that is not tied to a specific, acute event. One that can’t be traced back to one defining moment. It’s a pain that almost sneaks up on a customer. Where, at the end of the process and over time, the frustration evolves from a nuisance to an unavoidable frustration.

My shoulder injury is largely a product of a series of poor choices and unknown mistakes. Poor form and little to no recovery weakened the muscles and ground the joint over time. A labrum tear was the culmination of months of this friction.

In the same way, customer experience pain can slowly build over time. Small or imperceptible annoyances and frustrations accrue over time. This may look like repeated inconsistent fees on an account, a regularly forced password reset process, the need to click through three or four links to get to the thing you want to do. These seemingly insignificant pain points cumulate to significance.

Designing easy or enjoyable experiences requires attention to detail. It requires meeting basic expectations, which are probably much higher than you realize. Even more, enjoyable experiences must be created or engineered in specific moments when they’re least expected.

Pay attention to your customers and how they experience your product or service over time. Put yourself in their shoes and be honest about what you find. The invisible frustrations can lead to just as much damage as the obvious ones.

When Invisible Pain Becomes Obvious