How Design Choices Can Fail The User?

Mona Monsef
4 min readJan 11, 2021

I recently had an experience with countdown timer feature on Instagram where I felt the design failed the user.

In January 8th 2020, Flight 752 was shot downed by the Iranian missile in Tehran as a result of which 176 innocent people killed in this national tragedy. A year later, on anniversary of this horrible event one of the Instagram users posted a countdown on their story in remembrance of the victims and to sympathized with who have lost their loved ones.

Many Iranian users re-posted the countdown on their stories as an act of support. What happened however was the opposite of what was intended as the countdown celebrated the moment when it reached to 00:00:00.

The countdown timer shows time left to “silence of 176 passengers in the Ukrainian Flight”

Is this a user failure?

Many users argued whether using a countdown feature was the right thing to do and criticized people who have posted that. Their main argue was that a countdown is intended for positive events only and it should not have been used in such a sensitive case in the first place and it has nothing to do with the design but user’s decision.

What I have learned as a product designer over the past few years is that when a Human Computer Interaction (HCI) fails it is often the User Experience (UX) Design that failed and not the user themself. Yet it is always easier to blame human than the technology or the design!

Was using a countdown a right choice?

I started researching this in more depth and my first question was “what is an application of a countdown?” This is what Google showed me:

The main purpose of a countdown timer is to create a sense of urgency and give the feeling that “time is running out.” In addition to this, businesses also use countdown timers to count down to when a special discount or offer will become available.

Jul 23, 2020

From this definition — and many more that appeared on my search results — countdown is not necessarily used for positive events only and the user had all the rights to choose the timer to share their feelings in this case.

Concept of Tragic Design

I thought if this has happened on Instagram it probably should have happened before in other social media platforms as well. Doing more research led me to a great talk by Jonathan Shariat about Tragic Design which is also title of a book he authored.

Based on his talk there are four types of harms that a design could bring to the users; Physical , Emotional , Exclusion, and Injustice.

He brings examples for each type but the one that caught my attention is the example that he used for emotional harm, which by the way might resonate well with some of us.

If you were a Facebook user in 2014 you are probably familiar with the “Year In Review” feature which compiles some of users most-liked photos. Someone who has lost their child shared a photo of her on their Facebook and of course a lot of people interacted with it. Facebook designers designed this feature to celebrate users’ life in the past year. But unfortunately it went wrong in this case as this feature celebrated a truly sad life event. This is an absolutely horrible and heartbreaking moment for the user and of course the designers did not have the intention.

There were many examples like this with the Year In Review feature that Facebook designers improved the designs in the future iterations by enabling users to provide different reactions — and not just like — to posts to help prevent similar tragic issues.

Examples of how Facebook’s Year In Review disappointed and failed users

No one is to blame

That said, we cannot blame Facebook or Instagram designers for not predicting these use cases. It however emphasizes on the important role of us designers on people’s life. In the examples that I used a combination of design and technology ended up failing the user experience as technology could have been trained to recognize sad words or certain keywords and eliminate those posts on the “year’s highlight”.

If you are interested in this topic search for articles using bad design or tragic design keywords. I highly recommend reading this article on medium. Hope you find this helpful and please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with bad design.