Should we blame people for their shortcomings, moral slips, and misjudgments, or should we attribute them to bad design?

So I’ve been reading a lot over winter break, and I was half way through the book “The Design of Everyday Things” by Don Norman, when I sort of started thinking about a big central question:

Should we blame people for their shortcomings, moral slips, and misjudgment, or should we attribute it to bad design?

We can’t practically change human nature on the large scale — we can’t force or expect people to be highly competent, even-tempered, and morally infallible. Don Norman argues that we could adapt the policies and systems we build to be designed for fault-prone humans. When things go wrong, we should try to get ourselves used to saying that it’s not bad people, but bad design.

  • His idea is reassuring to us because he reminds us that the blunders and struggles we have with some everyday machines are more likely a result of poor design, rather than a reflection of our incompetence. Take this all too common situation: you’re in a hotel room, go to the shower, and you realize that you have no idea how to operate it. It’s got four knobs, no instructions, and you’re basically left to guess which one controls the heat and which one controls the water flow. You stand there, scratching your head for five minutes or scalding yourself by accident, feeling embarrassed because your half-million dollar investment in an elite education did nothing at all to help you figure out something as “simple” as a shower. Nah man, it’s the shower’s fault. Bad design.

Norman claims that the best sort of design is something that has the right restrictions, guard-rails, and simplifications — basically, HUMAN centered design. As you could probably tell by now, he takes a very practical approach to his design philosophy, and doesn’t really buy into the whole “they should know better” kind of bullshit.

  • A washing machine with fifty different switches and controls might be able to give you wickedly clean delicates at customizable temperatures and spinning speeds, but it’s not doing its job right if all this makes people skip straight to the default settings every time. He’s making the argument that, more often than not, it’s not always the sole quality of the result that measures a machine’s greatness, but a balance between the overall user experience it provides and that result.

It wasn’t hard for me to absorb and agree with a lot of what he was saying in his book. If you were to boil down his arguments and first principle assumptions about people, you’ll get that he lays down his groundwork by saying that humans are fundamentally prone to making errors, and therefore the oversights and mistakes they make sometimes while using technologies should be blamed more on bad design than bad people.

  • Why did the plane crash? Because the wing didn’t rotate like it should. Why? Because the pilot lost control of the wing. Why? Because the pilot was unconscious. Why? Because there was a gas tank leak in the back of the plane. Why? Because there was a faulty knob made of cheap metal that split open and broke. THAT is something that can be fixed and can save lives in the future.

SO Don Norman argues that people are meant to mess up, and we need proper design to accommodate for that.

This subtle shifting of blame from individuals to overall system design got me thinking about things like morality and policy. Does this viewpoint also apply to moral infractions?

Have you heard of the quote: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game”? It’s sort of like that.

Why is this important or relevant? Because I think the way people answer this question might be telling of the kinds of policies they might support or even perhaps shine light upon political views.

  • In The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, Haidt constructs two hypothetical “ideal societies” based upon the contrasting ideas of John Stuart Mill and Emile Durkheim. They both have two very different starting assumptions about people. Millian assumes people are generally good and should be allowed to maximize their free will. Durkheimian assumes people will tend to misbehave if they aren’t bound by social mores and duty. A Durkheimian world is one that values duty and social contracts, self-control over self-expression, and duty over rights.
  • You could interpret that like this: A Millian society puts more emphasis on the individual and less on the “design”, while a Durkheimian (and Norman-like) society is all about less individual and more focus on “design.”

In many ways, assuming that people are inherently good, and acting upon that assumption produces a lot of promising perks. Assuming the best about people is what grants us a lot of our luxuries, freedoms, and niceties. This gives you a lot of win-win situations.

  • We’ll be able to step away from our desk at the library for two minutes to get a coffee without having to chain all of our stuff down with lock and key
  • If we assume that people are good, and won’t all steal from each other at any open opportunity, and we’re able to enjoy having free toilet paper and soap in our public restrooms (for example). This kind of system benefits everybody, as long as people agree to practice moderation and look down upon those who overuse/abuse the free luxury.

Here is where assuming the best about people goes bad, and where disagreements might occur:

  • The school system in Rhode Island is sort of messed up: School districts fire teachers in June and rehire them in September so that they can collect unemployment benefits. Unfair, isn’t it? You’re talking entire districts and thousands of people that are entangled in this whole mess of nastiness. Does this mean all the teachers and the people in the board of education are depraved people for benefiting from this loophole? That’s a stretch. It’s a difficult process to stop, as doing “the right thing” means taking away a significant source of income these people may have been depending on.
  • Take a good look at the folks who frequent all-you-can-eat buffets, and you’ll notice that some people do some really morally questionable things: they starve themselves for two days in preparation before going in, load up their plates with the priciest food items in the buffet line, and gorge themselves so they could get the most bang out of their buck. What they are doing is technically legal, and the “design” of all-you-can-eat buffets permits this behavior. So if this behavior is done so rampantly that these restaurants eventually go bankrupt, what would you say is the problem? Bad people, or bad design?

So I want to tie this back to Don Norman and design. Do you agree with him about assuming the worst about people? And do you think his argument about people’s unavoidable tendencies to mess up have external validity in other things beyond design too?

Writer, Cog-Neuro Research Assistant @ Yale. Presenting my thoughts about self-development and life as a former college student ||

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