When Design is at fault, who is to take responsibility?

When two men were killed by an oncoming train while undergoing on-the-job training in Singapore earlier this year, many reacted to their senseless deaths by pointing fingers at the rail operator.

Questions were raised regarding safety and communication protocols. Investigations were carried out and most significantly, the driver of the train and an operations control staff have been dismissed.

When tragedy strikes, most people's first reaction (even those who do not know the victims personally) is to look for an explanation, a cause, a responsible party. We seem to derive satisfaction from directing our anger, grief, etc. at another human being, than at some malfunctioning object or ineffective system. Perhaps the pain suffered by the human scapegoat would make up for the pain that we feel, in a perverse way.

I must admit, I was one of those who felt that the rail operator should "pay for it" — until I came across "The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald A. Norman.

In the book, the author describes his experience as a member of the team called upon to analyse a nuclear plant accident. Just like in the railway track accident, "human error" was the first assumption and the nuclear plant operators were initially held responsible. However, what the author's team discovered was that "the plant's control rooms were so poorly designed that error was inevitable: design was at fault, not the operators."

This led me to wonder, could Design be the real culprit in the tragic track incident?

A report in the local newspaper has suggested that "perhaps the design of such maintenance walkways is one of the things that need relooking" — referring to the 0.5m wide ledge on which the work party was moving along, and which was located only 0.5m away from the track, with no physical barrier in between.

And what about the design of the warning signal or mode of alert? Was it perhaps easy to access and easy to operate? How did the various staff involved communicate with one another? Was the system designed in a way that facilitated communication? Must the safety features rely on human accuracy or responsibility? Could "forcing functions" (read Chapter 4 of “The Design of Everyday Things”) have been used to direct human behavior in a way that was fail-safe?

Design should be subjected to scrutiny and cross-examination and brought to public attention (or shame) more than the people involved in an accident, who are probably, in a way, victims themselves — victims of poor design.

“So we must design our machines on the assumption that people will make errors.” — Donald Norman

That brings us to the question of the Designer's responsibility. Are designers to be held responsible if the use of their design unwittingly leads to injury or death? I am not referring to cases of mis-use or abuse, but to the proper, intended use of a product or system.

Take architects for instance. They need to be properly qualified (licensed) because the buildings or structures they design put users' lives at stake. How about designers of communications systems, machines and even common, everyday objects like doors? Try Googling for deaths by everyday objects.

It is time for more designers to step forth and take responsibility for the design of fail-safe systems, environments, machines, etc. so that future tragedies may be prevented.