Tragic Design: The Real Cost of Bad Design and How To Fix It

Jonathan will be discussing the concepts in his book Tragic Design, published by O’Reilly Media. Bad design can have very real costs outside of just lost revenue. Bad design can harm physically, emotionally, by excluding, and by causing injustice. Jonathan challenges designers to rise to the challenge to avoid and fix these problems and put their design skills to use for good!

“This talk is a cliff notes of my book..” Tragic Design on O’Reilly

Jenny’s Story – shared with Jonathan by a nurse and it was a story that really bothered him. It bothered him and wouldn’t go away and “that’s when you know you’re about to beceom an activist for something”.

Jenny was in hospital for cancer treatment, which required toxic chemical treatment and careful 24 hour hyrdration post treatment. In the middle of everything, somehow the hydration was missed and she ended up dying. Jonathan wrote about it on Medium and the post got a lot of attention.

This sent Jonathan down the path of thinking how technology can make very serious differences to our lives.

Common negative consequences:

  • physical harm
  • emotional harm
  • exclusion
  • injustice

Physical harm

The healthcare industry has many instances of physical harm, where the technology in treatment contexts did not prevent harm; or got in the way of providing care.

Story of the Ford Pinto – they moved the petrol tank below the boot to provide more boot space; and subsequently the car tended to burst into flames even in very low-speed rear-end crashes… and to make it truly terrible in a shunt the doors tended to jam. Ford knew, estimated the cost to fix was more than the cost of paying out lawsuits. How could they possibly hold such a point of view? An economist had an answer that there is a cost to human life, there was a formula that could be used to make the decision.

We instinctively recoil against that kind of thinking. Then on top of that, Ford was wrong – they got sued a lot and it cost a lot. So they worked harder on a cheaper fix which they could roll out. Once the attitude changed the solutions came.

How can we look at our work differently? How can we view the world differently? How will this affect peoples lives?

Simple example: ergonomics. There are areas on a touch screen that are easier to use.

Diagram from A List Apart showing the easy and hard areas to touch with your thumb while holding a phone.

Emotional harm

We try to empathise but we can’t truly feel the way someone else feels.

Plus we often don’t empathise until we have pushed people into harm – kids do the “I’m not touching you!” trick of almost-but-not touching someone and it really gets into your personal space. Jonathan would do this to his sister when they were kids and it was when she’d cry that he’d snap out of it and say he was sorry.

Probably the canonical example: Facebook’s Year In Review showing Eric Meyer a photo of Rebecca, surrounded by celebratory graphics, in the year she’d passed away. This feature had good intentions but hadn’t been thought through and it hurt a lot of people – deaths of family, pets, houses burning down… things you don’t want to remember, particularly.

Game design has proved you can change peoples behaviour. League Of Legends were able to curb online abuse with a small design effort; yet other platforms like Twitter fail to really address online abuse.

Context drives action – the classic example was volunteers playing roles of prisoners and guards, where guards quickly started to physical harm prisoners.

Impolite software: pushes itself forward, takes more than gives, gobbles resources, interrupts the user, patronises the user, ignores user preferences, tricks the user… Clippy had great intentions, just terrible execution. Notifications break these rules all the time, everyone wants your attention and prioritises that over whatever you were doing. You should always give the user more than you take in return!

Reference: – you should be familiar with these because you’re going to eventually have someone ask you to do one.

LinkedIn gives itself a bad rap on this – Jonathan had it email everyone he’d ever emailed with Gmail and it felt really bad.


357,000+ people in Australia are blind or have low vision. Worldwide it’s 285 million, including 39 million who are entirely blind. It’s really common yet we consistently fail to design for it. There’s a myth of the ‘minority user’. Even if that doesn’t resonate, we have 4 billion people who aren’t even online yet.

There’s a danger to empathy where we don’t truly empathise, we transfer our own feelings onto someone else.

We all have bias. This is hard to accept about ourselves and really eye-opening when you get called on it. By definition you don’t know you have a bias. We all have bias.

It’s incredibly easy to accidentally introduce a bias. Example: wordpress theme that only has photos of women in oddly objectified poses. Even just simple things of posing with a coffee cup in an office rather than being shown working as a skilled professional. It sends a message whether that was intentional or not.


Bad design of the butterfly ballot – the infamous dangling chads – ended up deciding the fate of a nation. Bad design led to votes being thrown out, taking away someone’s democratic right because it was hard to punch the right places on the ballot. Florida came down to 500 votes.

Design is important. Bad design just shows us how important.

What can you do? Look for jobs in “less exciting” areas like healthcare, think about ethics, stand up for principles, consider the bad scenarios and outcomes as well as the good, donate your time, vote!