Designing for crisis

Oliver Lindberg
net magazine
Published in
6 min readSep 15, 2016


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

Illustration by Ben Mounsey

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 our 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.

Eric is an author, speaker, technical lead at Rebecca’s Gift, co-founder of An Event Apart and co-author of Design for Real Life. He’s been working on the web since 1993

This article originally appeared in issue 276 of net magazine



Oliver Lindberg
net magazine

Independent editor and content consultant. Founder and captain of @pixelpioneers. Co-founder and curator of GenerateConf. Former editor of @netmag.