Tell me when to go: Unintended consequences  in UX

When we talk about tragic design, it's often not caused by evil intent or gross negligence but by well meaning designers or businesses. This to me is even scarier, because I don't know about you but that describes me!

Good intentions are simply not enough. That's yet another reason why user research is so important.  (tweet this)

We say it to ourselves every day "You are not the user" because its our natural tendency to think the whole world has the same blurry nose in the middle of it's vision (sorry if I just made you aware of that). User's often surprise us, even though the reaction is usually "Duh!". 

Today's story is no different.

Our story comes from research done by Sacha Kapoor and Arvind Magesan titled "Paging Inspector Sands", a strange title which needs some quick explaining. "Inspector Sands" is apparently the code word theaters would use to discreetly alert staff of a fire so they can quickly deal with it while not alarming everyone by yelling fire and causing a panic. They chose this title because they felt that this issue matched the dilemma that the policy makers in that instance had to make. They have to balance the good of disclosing information for people to make their own decision about what to do with the fire, with the tendency for people to harm themselves. 

This brings us to the countdown crosswalk timers, which you may have seen on your pedestrian journeys.


Pedestrians love it! You can see at a glance exactly how much time you have left to walk across. As a designer this seems like a great idea! Users can make more informed decisions and not try to risk running across because they think there might be enough time left.

Additionally, if you were measuring accidents involving pedestrians, you would have seen a decrease and quickly marked it off as a success!

Only its not.

Why? Because pedestrians weren't the only ones taking a peek at those countdown timers.

From the paper, emphasis mine:
"Our empirical analysis reveals that countdown signals resulted in about a 5 percent increase in collisions per month at the average intersection. The effect corresponds to approximately 1.5 more collisions citywide per month The data also reveals starkly different effects for collisions involving pedestrians and those involving automobiles only. Specifically, although they reduce the number of pedestrians struck by automobiles, countdowns increase the number of collisions between automobiles. That the total number of collisions increased while collisions involving pedestrians decreased suggests that pedestrian countdown signals had a very significant effect on driver behavior. In fact, we find that collisions rose largely because of an increase in tailgating among drivers, a finding that implies drivers who know exactly when traffic lights will change behave more aggressively"

Keen drivers could see how long they had left before the lights would turn and would roll in, wait for the green and hit the gas again. They got used to a lot of people doing that so there was an increase in second cars tailgating as they rolled in waiting for the timer to hit 0 and the light to turn green.

This is where the dilemma of "Inspector Sands" comes in. While the countdown timers in their own right were good intentioned, revealing exactly how much time was left so pedestrians could cross safely, they were also causing harm by allowing others to partake in risky driving behavior. 

Tragic design isn't always black and white and in the book I try to talk about how these incidents came to be. Almost always there are very relatable circumstances that lead to it. This should scare you, It scares me, but it is why we need to be vigilant in examining our design, putting users first, and testing our assumptions every day.

To summarize:
Tragic design is rarely on purpose, good intentions aren't enough. We must be vigilant to test our assumptions daily. (tweet this)

Thanks for sticking around for another story of tragic design! If you would like these stories in your inbox and get updates about the book, please sign up below. Also, you can find me @DesignUXUI on twitter.

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About the Author

Jonathan loves people and making things designed for them. He has been designing professionally for over 6 years and is currently the Director of Product at Therapydia, co-host on The Design Review Podcast, and likes to write about what he learns. He loves to meet people and talk about design and tech on twitter @DesignUXUI.