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The Cost of Bad Design (Book Review)


A review of

Tragic Design: The Impact of Bad Design and How to Fix It

by Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier

 Book Website

About this book

A good reference for Methods/How-To, UX Theory, and Case Studies

Primary audience: Researchers and designers who are new to the topic or have some or significant experience with the topic.

Writing style: Matter of fact

Publisher: O’Reilly Media

Text density: Mostly text

206 pages, 9 chapters

Learn more about our book review guidelines



For web design consultant and author Eric Meyer, Facebook’s 2014 “Year In Review” feature—meant to be a celebratory compilation of posted moments from the last 12 months—was an unexpected and upsetting reminder of his young daughter’s tragic passing earlier in the year. There was no way to hide or opt out of the feature, and the video repeatedly appeared in his personal feed. A blog post he wrote later that day opened with, “I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it.”

Meyer’s story is one of many in Tragic Design that demonstrates how seemingly inconsequential digital interactions can harm users. Authors Jonathan Shariat and Cynthia Savard Saucier are design leaders with extensive UX experience, strong ethics, and empathy-driven design philosophies. By emphasizing the importance of ethical behavior, data-driven communication, digital inclusion, and social responsibility, Tragic Design makes a compelling case that deliberately putting people first is not only good for business, but also necessary for our own character development.

The book delivers on its title from the opening pages of the introduction. The authors examine a case study detailing what may be considered the most tragic type of design failure: one that causes irreversible physical harm. They tell the story of a cancer patient who died not from her illness, but from an error made by nurses who were misled by a poorly designed medical software interface. This dark setup allows the authors to reiterate their central thesis in a hopeful light: Designers play a critical role in creating meaningful work that “isn’t a burden on its users, but instead makes their lives better in some way.”

The next two chapters address how design can cause extreme emotions that taint users’ associations with a particular experience or brand (Chapter 3, “Design Can Anger” and Chapter 4, “Design Can Sadden”). Chapter 5, “Design Can Exclude,” speaks to accessibility, unconscious bias, and injustice. Chapters 6 and 7 (“Tools and Techniques” and “What We Can Do”) are action-oriented, outlining UX methods and general ethical practices that UX professionals and non-practitioners alike can apply immediately to create change, such as the simple act of speaking up to make team leads and stakeholders aware of issues they may never have considered previously. Each chapter concludes with key takeaways that summarize its most memorable concepts and an interview with an industry leader from a field related to that chapter’s content. The authors carefully cite sources and organizations that work to improve challenging societal circumstances through design, making the book a foundational resource that fits within a larger body of essential industry reading.

The way Shariat and Saucier use varied content types (case studies, personal anecdotes, images, recommendations, etc.) to illustrate themes makes the book a quick, easily digestible read. I found the case studies and accompanying images to be the most affecting. As a UX designer, I have been in situations where I need to pull from any available data to demonstrate how a particular design can benefit the business. Having an arsenal of case studies to reference is another impactful way to “successfully convince all stakeholders in our projects that the emotions felt by our users are important.”

I also appreciated the book’s guidance on how to build effective experiences based on analyses of unsuccessful designs. Particularly enlightening are designers’ reactions to their own failures. One example is Palm Beach election official Theresa LePore, designer of the notorious Florida butterfly ballots from the 2000 presidential election that complicated an already contentious recount. The design featured the candidates’ names alternating across two adjacent pages with punch holes in the center, confusing voters and causing them to mistakenly mark their ballots. LePore reflects on her conscious effort to create an inclusive design with special consideration for voters who were blind and disabled. Interestingly, she also places some blame for the infamous controversy on voters (i.e., ballot users): “People need to take some responsibility as well for what they do.” The authors take this opportunity to reiterate the importance of advocating for usability testing, particularly in the context of civic design, to reduce the likelihood of user error.

Opportunities for growth are not limited to only acknowledging and improving upon our mistakes. In Chapter 5 (“Design Can Exclude”), the authors tell the story of designer Nikki Sylianteng’s guerilla approach to improving parking signage to prevent unjust penalties for law-abiding citizens who misinterpret confusing designs. She posted and solicited community feedback on her own simplified design that went on to be piloted and posted in major cities around the globe. UX designers’ aptitude for identifying and solving usability problems can do more than just benefit the users and stakeholders at their day jobs. Inspiring anecdotes like Nikki’s remind me that, as a member of the design community, I do not need to fully separate my work from my personal life and always have the power to fix unjust problems without having to “wait to be commissioned to improve [them].”

After I finished the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about Eric Meyer’s experience with Facebook reminding him of his child’s death. Some further reading revealed that Meyer’s story did not end with that 2014 blog post. In January of this year, he tweeted that Facebook yet again created and “ambushed” him with a video that included photos of his deceased daughter. Shopify UX director Amy Thibodeau, who was a content strategist at Facebook around the time “Year In Review” launched, responded through a Twitter thread of her own. In it, she took responsibility for her role in designing an earlier iteration of the offending feature, shared ideas to improve the experience that could prevent distress, and offered a sincere apology directly to Eric. We need more people like this in our field who embody Shariat and Saucier’s advice to “take every opportunity to learn and never let your pride get in the way.”

In Tragic Design’s foreword, designer and technologist John Maeda notes, “because of the way that the design profession is taught in the academy today, driven primarily by aesthetics and in the absence of testing or other data gathering, we’ll likely see even more tragedies introduced through our apps, screens, and assorted IoT devices.” The book’s authors successfully redirect focus onto education, research, and compassion: fundamentals without which we can’t create good designs. While this book offers much to responsible, ethical designers who already agree with its thesis, it is the rest of our community who stands to benefit from it the most.

[bluebox] Earlier during the trip, the captain felt a vibration when passing near a bridge. Thinking that some debris might be caught in the propeller, he switched the piloting system to a backup mode that gave him manual control of the propeller blades This is what is expected and is a usual procedure. However, he forgot to switch back to normal piloting mode. As the ferry reached the pier, the captain prepared the usual approaching maneuver. However, in backup mode, this manipulation creates an acceleration instead of a deceleration.

To further confuse the captain, the ferry had three piloting consoles: one on each side of the vessel and one in the middle. Following the usual approaching procedure, he transferred the control to the console on the right side so he could see the dock. When he realized that the ferry was not slowing down, he ran to the center console, thinking that he might have made a mistake when transferring the controls. But again, the ship didn’t respond. In the seconds that he had before the crash, he ran from one control panel to another, without noticing that he had misdiagnosed the issue.

The captain was described by the investigators as conscientious and experienced. He was trained by the manufacturer and he had even trained other captains on this piloting system. However, regardless of this experience and training, we can understand how he could make such an error when looking at a picture of the console (see Figure 2-6).

Photo of the control panel with many indicator lights and many buttons with a central manual lever control.

Figure 2-6. The ferry’s control console. How quickly can you spot the “backup on” button with its tiny indicator light among the mass of other buttons and possible modes? (source: National Transportation Safety Board)

Give yourself a few seconds to locate the “backup on” button with the indicator illuminated among the mass of other buttons and possible modes. Did you find it? No? Try again, it’s on the left side. Are you able to tell if this console is in control, or if another one is? When using modes as a design pattern, the interface should always clearly indicate every element that is affected by this mode. Again, this ties back to Nielsen’s first rule of usability:

  1. Visibility of system status

The system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time. [/bluebox]