Interaction design that saves lives

16 Mar 2010 - 4:23pm
6 years ago
7 replies
2846 reads
Alex ONeal

Recently, Scientific American pointed out the power of interaction design to save lives, specifically, by increasing organ donations. (Boldface added.)

For example, rates of organ donation vary widely within Europe, from 100 percent in France and Poland to 17 percent in the U.K. and just 4 percent in Denmark. The difference cannot be ascribed to different cultural views about organ donation but rather whether the country in question has a policy that is opt-in (check this box if you want to donate your organs) or opt-out (check this box if you do not want to donate your organs). "We think we're rational," says economist John Gowdy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. "But really it's the person who designs the question on the back of a driver's license who made the choice for us."

Here's another example, from Customer Experience Matters, regarding the redesign of hospital crash carts. And Graphic Design Blender shares how graphic design changes in highway signs improved nighttime visibility and lead to faster reaction times.

Here's my question: does anyone else have specific examples of how excellent interaction design can be a force for good in people's lives?


16 Mar 2010 - 5:51pm
Alex Livingstone

My friend's parents told him that when the ice-cream van played music, it meant they were all out of ice-cream. :)

16 Mar 2010 - 6:23pm
Hilary Bienstock

Alex -
If you're not already aware of it, you should look at the book Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein.  I'm pretty sure it talks about the organ donation example, and also many other examples in the same vein.  It's a quick and enjoyable read (ask the members of the LA-UX Bookclub), and is available in paperback.


Hilary User Experience
                   Hilary Bienstock, Principal  :: 310.883.5818  ::  fax 310.829.2839

17 Mar 2010 - 1:52pm
Alex ONeal

Thanks for the tip!  I'll definitely check it out.

18 Mar 2010 - 3:24pm
Karl Proctor


I recently heard a fascinating talk by Harold Thimbleby here at Swansea Uni about a topic very similar to this.  He talked about medical devices and the problems of poor design and how this can lead to errors like decimal point errors...The talk was based on a paper he wrote in 2008;

H. Thimbleby, “Ignorance of interaction programming is killing people,” ACM Interactions, pp52–57, September+October, 2008.
Hope this helps.


18 Mar 2010 - 5:01pm
Alex ONeal

Thanks for the reference!

18 Mar 2010 - 8:07pm
Dave Malouf

you should check out the Stanford Liberation Technology program and BJ Fogg's Persuasion Program (also at stanford). Further, the Austin Center for Design ( (@jkolko's new school) is all about Social Entrepeneurship (there is saving "a life" and saving "humanity"; you can do both)

-- dave


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