Fail.

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, I saw the brief note in my inbox. Mr. T, a kind older gentleman at my church, was in critical condition at the hospital. The reason? While at the mall, Mr. T had guided his wheelchair down what he thought was a wheelchair ramp. It turned out to be a set of stairs. Consequently, he tumbled down the stairs and was now seriously injured. Words like, “life threatening”, “spinal injury”, “head wounds”, “major surgery”, and “possible paralysis” peppered the email. After the first gasps of horror and the slow head-shakes that expressed dismay, the next natural reaction was to cry. As the tears stung my eyes and the message blurred on my monitor, I couldn’t help but wonder how something like this could have happened. How, in these modern environments filled with signs and arrows pointing in every direction, could someone have missed the fact that the passage in front of him was, in fact, a potentially deadly set of stairs?

As a user experience researcher, my first thoughts jump to the shortcomings in the physical surroundings that would have led Mr. T to his fall. Of course, I wasn’t there – I didn’t see the accident. There are numerous scenarios that could have played out: there was not adequate signage; the stairwell actually looked like a ramp; he merely wasn’t paying attention. But, I can empathize with that split second decision to take action based on the familiar that results in something going horribly wrong. We participate in countless experiences each day that are rooted in habit – we don’t have to think about these things and proceed based on success during a past experience. Over time, with conditioning and the lack of catastrophes, we may begin to ignore things around us as we meander from one place to another, completely comfortable in the current setting. Have you ever suddenly found traffic merging onto you in a lane that you had thought was safely (and consistently) your territory? Perhaps you missed the fact that road construction was completed overnight and months of obeying detour signs had given way to a new “Right Lane Ends” sign that you had not noticed. When was the last time you reached for a door handle and pushed, because pushing seemed like the logical action, even after reading the “Pull” directive etched onto the glass?

The day after Mr. T’s surgery, I went to visit him in the hospital. Strapped into his hospital bed, he could only move his head slightly to see me. His yellowing, bloodless arms lay motionless on top of the blanket and his head was stitched up like a patchwork quilt. He looked at me intently and whispered something. Bending close so that I could hear him, he repeated, “I feel so stupid.” My heart sank. I wanted to encourage him, to let him know that this was a classic case of a “bad user interface,” that there hadn’t been enough cues to help him make the right decision the first time, and that he was not to blame. Instead, I just managed to tell him that it wasn’t his fault and that he couldn’t have known what was going to happen. As I consider that moment, I realize that we blunder often as we go through life. More often than not, things go our way. But there are those times when “tried and true” slips from beneath our feet and we plunge, flailing in confusion on the way down. While most mishaps are not life threatening, if we stopped to think about it, how many experiences would we count as “failures”? Even worse, how often would we blame ourselves? How can we prevent such negative results, from the annoying to the devastating? How can we help Mr. T?