Life and Death Design Cover

Life and Death Design

What Life-Saving Technology Can Teach Everyday UX Designers

By Katie Swindler

Published: December 2021
Paperback: 248 pages
ISBN: 978-1933820-84-2
Digital ISBN: 978-1933820-08-8

Emergencies—landing a malfunctioning plane, resuscitating a heart attack victim, or avoiding a head-on car crash—all require split-second decisions that can mean life or death. Fortunately, designers of life-saving products have leveraged research and brain science to help users reduce panic and harness their best instincts. Life and Death Design brings these techniques to everyday designers who want to help their users think clearly and act safely.

Paperback + Ebooks i All of our Paperbacks come with a FREE ebook in 4 common formats.


Ebooks only i All ebooks come in DRM-free Kindle (MOBI), PDF, ePub, and DAISY formats.


More about Life and Death Design


Katie Swindler does a brilliant job of breaking down our stress response, with vivid stories that demonstrate how the systems we create help or hinder at critical times.

–Carolyn Chandler, Coauthor, A Project Guide to UX Design and Adventures in Experience Design

To gain amazing insight from Swindler’s excellent book, you don’t need to be someone who designs for people in extremis. You just need to be someone who designs for people under stress, which is, of course, everybody.

—Jon Bloom, Ph.D., Staff Conversation Designer, Google

Swindler’s memorable insights are effective for practitioners in all fields; you’ll be returning to this one again and again.

—Melissa Smith, PhD, UX Researcher, YouTube

A great deep-dive for anyone interested in understanding how the products and services they build impact behavior, and how to actively design for that responsibility.

—Lauren Liss, Assistant Professor, Columbia College Chicago

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: A Designer’s Guide to The Human Stress Response
Chapter 2: The Startle Reflex
Chapter 3: Intuitive Assessment
Chapter 4: Fight, Flight or Freeze
Chapter 5: Reasoned Reaction
Chapter 6: Recovery
Chapter 7: Alarms and Alerts
Chapter 8: Hero by Design


Design is a matter of life and death. It’s far too easy for those practicing design to forget the truth of that statement while they are engaged in the practice of it. Sure, we talk at length about making certain that our work is “human-centered,” and we throw lots of references to empathy in the mix for good measure, but how far do we really go into the human aspect of human-centricity? Typically, not that far.

I didn’t realize to what extent this was true until a few years ago when I took on a design leadership role for a massive, multiyear project to design the upgraded system that child welfare workers used to ensure the delivery of critical services. In the most extreme cases, getting children out of their current situations is a matter of life and death. The workers using this system frequently found themselves under conditions of extreme duress where every minute mattered to ensure a child’s safety. My design team and the ones before me all claimed to put the “child at the center” of our work, but what about the worker? It is the fast and thorough response of the person inter- acting with the system that determines if the necessary interventions happen when needed. The context of their work, their state of mind, and how they as humans respond to stress and imminent danger were all critical factors to be considered. Yet, we barely lifted our heads out of the typical “human-centered design” activities to take those factors into account on anything but the most superficial level.

What we needed was a guide. We needed an accessible way to become well versed in the human stress response. We needed to fully understand the reflexes, instincts, and intuitive behaviors that affect the humans who would use what we built. We needed this book.

Every chapter of Life and Death Design by Katie Swindler is brimming with easy-to-understand explanations of how design impacts critical operations while thoroughly tying the relevant aspects of human biology and psychology to how they shape human behavior in real world scenarios. Swindler deftly illustrates these concepts with well researched historical references and relatable true stories—some you know well, and others you may not have heard before. As if that weren’t enough, every chapter is heavily cited with a wealth of academic references for further reading.

Life and Death Design not only makes learning complex and necessary subject matter enjoyable, but what you’ll learn will also radically change how you approach designing for humans from this point on. Personally, I will be referring to this work and the resources included here again and again, and you should too.

—Lisa Baskett, Healthcare Design Strategist


These common questions and their short answers are taken from Katie Swindler’s book Life and Death Design: What Life-Saving Technology Can Teach Everyday UX Designers. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. What do you mean by “life and death design”? Is this book about death?
    Not really. This is a book about high-stakes designs with life-and- death consequences and all the ways your designs can help people in moments of extreme stress or crisis. It’s a book about designs that save lives. In particular, Chapter 8, “Hero by Design,” explores ways to help bring out the best in your users, helping them step up and save the day.
  2. Will I be able to use what’s in this book if I design “boring” stuff?
    As long as you design something meant to solve a problem for a user, the information in this book will apply to your work. Problems cause stress. Whether someone is under a small or a large amount of stress, the same neurochemicals are released and the same fight- flight-or freeze instincts drive behaviors. Because of this, lessons learned by designers creating products for extreme environments, like emergency rooms or war zones, can be applied to all sorts of products that help stressed-out users across just about any industry imaginable. In Chapter 1, “A Designer’s Guide to the Human Stress Response,” you’ll get an overview of the five phases of the stress response and the design considerations unique to each phase. You’ll also get a plain language overview of the neuroscience that drives these phases.
  3. Does this book cover techniques to address harmful biases?
    Absolutely. When humans are stressed, they instinctively fall back on intuition-based decision-making, which has a lot of benefits, but can also open the door for harmful biases to creep in. So Chapter 3, “Intuitive Assessment,” explores the science of intuition in detail, including how it’s formed, when it is most beneficial (and when it’s most harmful), and how it can be harnessed through good design. It also looks closely at the role that bias plays in intuitive decision-making. Then Chapter 5, “Reasoned Reaction,” explores specific design techniques to help users control bias, even under extremely stressful situations when their instincts might otherwise lead them astray.
  4. I design for a population with people who are chronically stressed. Does this book help me address the unique needs of my users?
    The techniques for creating calming designs covered in Chapter 6, “Recovery,” will be of particular interest for those people designing for users who are chronically stressed. If you are designing for populations with high levels of PTSD, you may also want to review Chapter 2, “The Startle Reflex,” to learn ways to avoid triggering a startle reflex, as people with PTSD tend to have a particular sensitivity to startling stimuli. Chapter 7, which covers “Alarms and Alerts,” might also be useful to those designers creating products used in high-stress environments because the chapter discusses techniques to communicate important information appropriately to your users without overwhelming or further stressing them.