Eric Meyer urges de­sign­ers to pay at­ten­tion to the worst-case sce­nario, and make a bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence for all users

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Eric Meyer im­plores web de­sign­ers to con­sider the worst-case sce­nario

On the morn­ing of Au­gust 17 2013, my fam­ily was on va­ca­tion 500 miles from home, and our mid­dle child Re­becca had been feel­ing ill for a few days. 12 hours later, she was in a med­i­cally in­duced coma and on a Life Flight he­li­copter to the Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal of Philadel­phia. My wife Kat and I sat in the back seat of a stranger’s car as they drove us to Philadel­phia, to catch up with Re­becca and find out if her life could be saved.

The ques­tion that kept com­ing to Kat and me, sit­ting in the dark in the back of that car, was: ‘How do we get to Re­becca?’ We were headed to a hos­pi­tal we’d never been to be­fore, in a city we didn’t know at all. The car’s GPS gave us pre­cise rout­ing and ar­rival time in­for­ma­tion, of course, but what should we do when we reached the hos­pi­tal at the stroke of mid­night?

Emer­gency in­for­ma­tion

I even­tu­ally re­alised I could use my iPhone to look it up. I found the hos­pi­tal’s web­site, but it pro­vided noth­ing to help peo­ple in our sit­u­a­tion. There was no sin­gle point of in­for­ma­tion for peo­ple rush­ing to the hos­pi­tal, stunned by the ter­ri­fy­ing turn their lives had taken. There were bits of rel­e­vant in­for­ma­tion scat­tered through­out the site, but other pieces of really im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion – like the fact that at mid­night the front doors of the hos­pi­tal are locked and there’s no­body staffing the in­for­ma­tion desk – were nowhere to be found.

It’s not just this one hos­pi­tal, ei­ther. I’ve looked at a lot of hos­pi­tal web­sites in the two years since that night, and not one of them has a path for peo­ple in a mo­ment of se­vere cri­sis. Most of them don’t even give you the ad­dress of the emer­gency room, which is usu­ally dis­tinct from the hos­pi­tal’s mail­ing ad­dress.

This means, when you look up the hos­pi­tal on­line in a mo­ment of emer­gency, and plug the listed ad­dress into a GPS, the chances are you’ll end up at the mail re­ceiv­ing dock, or maybe the hos­pi­tal’s main en­trance. The emer­gency room en­trance could be in an­other build­ing, or even on a com­pletely dif­fer­ent block.

It’s al­most lu­di­crous to con­sider, isn’t it? Hos­pi­tals, which have en­tire de­part­ments with words like ‘Ur­gent’ and ‘Emer­gency’ in their names, haven’t taken those use cases into ac­count in their web de­sign. Of­ten they don’t take it into ac­count in their over­all de­sign, ei­ther, but that just speaks even more loudly to the un­der­ly­ing prob­lem: we marginalise cri­sis sce­nar­ios.

Edge cases

There are some fa­mil­iar phrases in our pro­fes­sion, things like: ‘We’re de­sign­ing for the 90 per cent, not the 10 per cent’ and ‘We’re not go­ing to worry about edge cases’. As Evan Hensleigh has ob­served, though, the term ‘edge case’ it­self is telling: it de­fines the edges of what – or who – you care about.

We’re not trained to take cri­sis sit­u­a­tions into ac­count when we de­sign. It’s hu­man na­ture to look away from dif­fi­culty, to avoid pain. There are pro­fes­sions (ar­chi­tec­ture, engi­neer­ing and soft­ware de­sign, for ex­am­ple)

where the worst case sit­u­a­tion is con­sid­ered as a mat­ter of course. The im­por­tance of de­sign­ing for such cases – along with the po­ten­tially fa­tal con­se­quences of ig­nor­ing them – is taught in schools and re­in­forced through the pro­fes­sional cul­ture.

Cog­ni­tive re­sources

As web pro­fes­sion­als, we don’t think of what we do as hav­ing that sort of im­port. But think back to the hos­pi­tal web­site. Put two par­ents and a gravely in­jured child in a car, and con­sider how the lack of a clear set of di­rec­tions to the emer­gency room could re­sult in that child’s death, due to those pre­cious sec­onds wasted by go­ing to the ad­dress listed on the hos­pi­tal web­site and then hav­ing to search again for the lo­ca­tion of the ac­tual emer­gency room.

It’s all too easy to dis­miss this as ir­rel­e­vant, be­cause – come on – who would look up an ad­dress and plug it into a GPS in­stead of call­ing the hos­pi­tal to get di­rec­tions? As web de­sign­ers, how our users be­have is not our de­ci­sion to make. As­sum­ing a cer­tain course of ac­tion is just an­other form of dodg­ing dif­fi­culty, of look­ing away from pain.

Mo­bile-first isn’t just a pat­tern of be­hav­iour any more: for many, it’s an in­stinct. And in mo­ments of se­vere cri­sis, when it be­comes al­most im­pos­si­ble to think at all, let alone think ra­tio­nally, we fall back on in­stinct. This is borne out by re­search in cog­ni­tive science, which has found that each of us has a fi­nite pool of cog­ni­tive re­sources. What­ever we use on one task is not avail­able for oth­ers.

As an ex­am­ple, re­search has shown that the more de­mand­ing a men­tal ex­er­cise, the fewer re­sources are avail­able for things like willpower or rea­son­ing. In mo­ments of ex­treme stress, all (or nearly all) cog­ni­tive re­sources are con­sumed by the sit­u­a­tion at hand. That leaves pre­cious lit­tle for any other tasks. Steve Krug fa­mously said, “Don’t make me think!”, but in sit­u­a­tions like th­ese, we al­most lit­er­ally can’t think.

Stress cases

In fairness, the term ‘cri­sis’ is a lit­tle bit re­stric­tive. What we’re really talk­ing about is sit­u­a­tions of stress, some­times ex­treme stress, which is why Sara Wachter-Boettcher and I as­sert in a forth­com­ing book that Jared Spool’s term ‘stress cases’ is far bet­ter than ‘edge cases’. The point is to bring stress cases into the fold, as it were; to make them a part of our process, rather than push­ing them to the mar­gins.

This can be done for al­most any kind of web­site. If you’re say­ing to your­self, ‘Sure, but this doesn’t ap­ply to what I do’, you need to stop and really think about it. It doesn’t take much cre­ativ­ity to come up with a sit­u­a­tion where one of your users could come to your de­sign in a stressed sit­u­a­tion, or even a mo­ment of se­ri­ous cri­sis. To quote Kris­ten Bur­roughs: “If I can come up with an hon­est cri­sis per­sona for the coupons and deals space … any­one can.”

Invisible de­sign

Look at your work through those eyes as best you can, con­sid­er­ing how the ex­pe­ri­ence helps or hin­ders those who are se­verely cog­ni­tively drained, enor­mously dis­tracted, and still in need of what you of­fer. What you see through their eyes may sur­prise you.

The ben­e­fits are man­i­fold. Keep­ing a fo­cus on stress cases means keep­ing a fo­cus on making our ex­pe­ri­ences as straight­for­ward as pos­si­ble, which helps not just peo­ple in cri­sis, but all users. If a stunned, fright­ened user can understand what your de­sign is telling them, and find the path to what they need, the Pla­tonic ideal of a user should have no trou­ble at all.

And if your con­sid­er­a­tion of stress cases helps peo­ple who are in fact un­der enor­mous stress – whether from work or fi­nances or re­la­tion­ships or med­i­cal cri­sis or what­ever – you will have helped them in the most pro­found way, sim­ply by not adding to their bur­dens. Your work will be­come invisible in ex­actly the way de­sign of­ten as­pires to be, by cre­at­ing a path so smooth the user never no­tices the path at all.

There can be no higher level of ac­com­plish­ment. It is the most hu­mane and hu­man thing you can do: to use your skills, your ex­pe­ri­ence, and your com­pas­sion in ser­vice to those who need it most.

Keep­ing a fo­cus on stress cases means making our ex­pe­ri­ences as straight­for­ward as pos­si­ble. If a stunned, fright­ened user can understand what your de­sign is telling them, the Pla­tonic

ideal of a user should have no trou­ble at all

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