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 Swindler deftly illustrates these concepts with well researched historical references and relatable true stories—some you know well, and others you may not have heard before.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