It’s an unfortunate fact that no matter how good design becomes, there will always be accidents. Be it a simple misunderstanding that is easily remedied, or a terrible industrial disaster with lasting consequences, the products, and systems we create are proven time and again to only be as good as those who create and use them. However, despite the diversity in scope and nature of errors, between 80% and 95% of all industrial accidents are blamed entirely on human error. For a designer, this seems at first glance to be excellent news. The products and systems we design are rarely at fault, and who really can be blamed if a user happens to fall asleep at the wheel or leave their stove running? Design can only do so much.
But is that true? Even a cursory consideration of the numbers seems a bit off. If the human error rate is so high, then perhaps the humans at error are not the users, but those who created the device or system in the first place. While electrical or mechanical errors necessitate fixes before a design can come to fruition, errors of operation or use are often not so immediately addressed. After all, the design works! Surely the user is simply failing to follow instructions correctly, or not paying proper attention to the design’s operation. And maybe some are. But when improper use becomes the leading cause of failure, one must ask why so many people are unable to fulfill a design’s promise.
Despite all the progress made in the design field over the past decades towards a more human-centered method of thinking and creating, there exists a large blind spot in the eyes of many designers: experiential design. While a product can be created that fulfills a task sufficiently, if that product exists in an otherwise boring environment and is supposed to be the sole focus of an operator for eight hours a day, five days a week, it becomes easy to see why the device may not be operated perfectly each time. Ergonomics and aesthetics may cater to the tactile experience of a design, but what is it that addresses the mental and emotional stresses of interacting with a device or system?
No design can be perfect, but every design can become better by troubleshooting, iteration, and considering every aspect of its lifecycle, from the raw materials used in its creation, to its manufacture, and through its use. Error, human and otherwise occur when a design does not consider each step along its journey, and it is the role of the designer to thoroughly research each step of this process, and strive to fix errors not only technical, but of a more human nature as well.
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