It's obvious that I'm a big believer in the idea that thinking about route setting as design has big benefits for route setters. I became exposed to some of the concepts of design through my girlfriend, an accomplished UX Designer. The more we discussed her work, the more I realised how what we were doing was actually very similar. Sure, she was designing in the digital world and I in the physical, but we were both designing - creating products to meet a need. Although that much was clear, it was hard to bridge one perceived dissimilarity between the two processes. In her work, it is imperative to make the product as easy as possible to use. If she's designing a website for an internet service provider, her mandate is to make it function as intuitively and smoothly as possible. Make it easy. But when we set a route, we're not just trying to make things easy, are we? Yes and no.
We certainly aren't trying to make things easy in a climbing sense. Otherwise, we'd just set jug ladders on slab walls. But, we are absolutely trying to make things easy with respect to the purpose of our routes. If our purpose (as it is in many gyms) is to create challenging, fun, and interesting movement, that teaches people how to climb, then of course we want to do that so that it's as easy as it can possibly be. If we set a route that is supposed to teach people how to flag, we want to make the process of learning how to flag as easy as possible. To illustrate this, let's imagine we have two different routes. They both have sequences that are ideally suited to alternating, flagging movements up the wall. Using this technique is by far the easiest way to ascend this piece of climbing wall. Except, on one of the routes, we add footers all over the place - in places where, if used, they will make the climb more difficult. Which is the better route? Obviously (given our purpose is to teach flagging) the first route is better. It achieves our goal in the easiest way possible. This is what I mean by making things easy.
Now, if we return to the other criteria I mentioned above - challenging - then things seem to get a little bit more complicated. How can we make something challenging in an easy way? Aren't these things oxymorons? Polar opposites? Again, it's all in what we mean by easy. We want routes to be challenging because many climbers have a positive experience when confronted with challenges. It's part of the sport. But there are better and worse ways to challenge climbers with our routes. Climbing on razor sharp, painful crimps with smear feet is incredibly challenging, but it's probably not a good idea. Simply because it meets less of the other criteria that our routes are supposed to meet - it won't teach you much about climbing (balance, technique), it's not that fun, and it's not that interesting. Far better, then, to set challenging routes in other ways. Make the climber experiment with their centre of gravity, grasp holds in unconventional ways, or force them to utilise the natural features of the walls. Obviously, this requires a greater level of technical proficiency and creativity from the setter, but there's no denying that it's ideal.
Obviously it's all relative to who you're setting for. Maybe you're in a gym filled with sadomasochists who love flappers and split tips. Well, go crazy - get out the tweaky holds and observe the beautiful misery - but most of us aren't in this situation. In the same way, sometimes you have to utilise the challenge of awkwardness or pain to split competitors at competitions. I have virtually no experience here, but I've heard more experienced setters discuss the style of World Cup boulder problems and the various techniques that are utilised to make these routes suitability challenging - many of which do include painful or uncomfortable sequences and holds.
What kind of hard do we want? The kind of hard that meets the overall purpose of our routes, whatever that might be.