The UX of a Sunburn

As I sit here writing this, I have a really bad sunburn. Looking back at my “last day of vacation” behaviour, I should have expected this. What I didn’t expect was to fix it with UX.


Day 1 and Day 2 of this sunburn were what you have all probably experienced at one time or another: sensitive, tender, delicate skin that makes you punch people when they touch it. 

During those days the shoulder strap of my computer bag felt like the soft touch of tree bark and barbed wire.

As long as I stayed still and wore comfortable clothing, it was tolerable.

But if you have ever had a bad sunburn, you know that the pain isn’t the worst part.

The worst part came on Day 3. The itching.

At 4:30 this morning I woke up in agony, tortured by a thousand continuous, overwhelming prickles as my sunburn caused the layers of my skin to blister.

You couldn’t see these blisters. They were invisible. But fucking hell, they were in there.

Basically, I was panicking. I couldn’t stay still. It wouldn’t stop. And it was mostly on my back, where I couldn’t reach.

I had two possible options. After momentarily considering suicide, I decided to wake up my girlfriend instead, so she could help. 

While frantically changing clothing, taking cold showers, squirming in bed, and Googling home remedies (white vinegar, who knew?!), I had a moment of clarity about two important aspects of the UX process.


1) There IS a difference between empathizing with a problem, and understanding a problem.

My girlfriend, bless her soul, just wanted to help. 

She assumed I was in pain. After all, I did have a sunburn. It did hurt. was clenching my fists at all times. My whole back was red, for Christ’s sake!

Not an unreasonable assumption.

So without a word, she jumped up, got a cold wet towel and put it on my back. She was also careful to touch me gently, so she wouldn’t cause any punching.

She was super empathetic. She cared. She was emotionally involved. I couldn’t have asked for more effort. Especially at 4:30 in the morning. 

Problem: I wasn’t in pain. I was really fucking itchy!

So that cold wet towel started to evaporate, which made the little hairs stand up, and her gentle touching gave me that “oh-my-god-I-am-going-to-break-something” sort of aggression.

Not good. I think the government should sunburn terrorists and wait three days instead of waterboarding. 

It wasn’t her fault. After all, on Day 1 and Day 2, that would have felt great. But this was Day 3. My problem had changed.

She quickly observed that this treatment was making things worse, and started to ask questions. And I started giving feedback. 

“Don’t be gentle!”

“Get that fucking towel off me, please!”

“Yes, you can cover me in vinegar! Just do it!”

When it clicked for her that the sunburn itself was not the problem, she pulled out some hydrocortizone, which she had for mosquito bites. 

I have never felt such beautiful, perfect calmness. 

30 minutes later I was asleep again.


She was very empathetic to my problem at first. She has had sunburns. She obviously cared that was I was in agony. She wanted to fix it.

You can only understand a problem after observing it. She tested her assumptions, got feedback from me (the user of the sunburn) and changed her approach to fit the new information.

She couldn't see the itching. As designers, we often look for what we can see, or measure, or what people say to us. But that isn’t always the truth we need.


2) There is a difference between emotions caused by avoiding a problem, and by needing to conquer a problem. 

This, to me, was a very interesting thing to realize in-the-moment.

When my problem was pain — something humans want to avoid — my approach, like most people, was to be careful. I was protective. 

I chose clothing that was soft. I tried not to move that god forsaken computer bag too much. I told people that handshakes were better than bear hugs.

As long as I did that, the problem didn’t happen, and I was happy. The “experience” of the sunburn wasn’t that bad, actually. 

However, on Day 3, everything changed. 

Now I had a constant problem that needed to be conquered, and what was my response?

Aggresssion. Action. Speed.

I would have paid $1000 in that moment, just to make it stop. I was desperate.

So as a UX designer… what type of emotions and behaviour are you seeing?

Are people angry? Or hesitant? 

Are they asking for a solution, or are they not doing something in particular?

Are they desperate to change something, or careful to avoid it?


Next time you’re designing a solution to a problem, assume nothing. Stop to gather data, ask questions, and observe before you take action. Decide what the problem is, then solve it.

Don’t make the itch worse by protecting the burn.