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Avoiding human error through good design

“To err is human;” as Alexander Pope said in his poem An Essay on Criticism, Part II , in 1711. While anyone can make mistakes, there are a few tips that a designer or developer can consider in order to make a user’s experience easier and more rewarding.

In many fields, a range from 75 to 95 percent of all accidents are reported as human error. This statistic proves that we usually have a "human blame" approach to explain the problem, but the percentage is high enough to suggest that other factors must be involved.

Those errors, in relations to the UI design, could be simple things such as filling a form with wrong information, sending money to the wrong person, deleting photos of your favourite holiday or worse, terrifying millions of people with a false missile alert due to a poorly designed drop-down which is just what the US Emergency Alert System and Commercial Mobile Alert System did when issuing an alert over television, radio, and cellphones in the U.S. state of Hawaii in January 2018.

According to several psychologist studies, errors can be divided into two major categories: slips or error of execution and mistakes or error of intention. Here’s a brief explanation:

Slips occur when users intend to perform one action, but end up doing another (often similar) action. For example, misspelling your email address or phone number, selecting the wrong checkbox or forgetting to hit save before closing a document. Slips are typically made when users are on ‘autopilot’ or when not fully focussed on the task at hand.

Mistakes are made when users have goals that are inappropriate for the current problem or task. They happen when someone intentionally does something wrong. For example, if users are accidentally misclassifying their job industry on a website profile or trying to upload lots of high-resolution images on a social network. Mistakes are conscious errors and often arise when a user has incomplete or incorrect information about the task and develops a mental model that doesn’t match how the user interface actually works.

Serious accidents are frequently blamed on "human error." Yet careful analysis of such situations shows that the design or installation of the equipment has contributed significantly to the problems. The design team or installers did not pay sufficient attention to the needs of those who would be using the equipment, so confusion or error was almost unavoidable. -Donald A. Norman

It is actually relatively straight forward to design for a situation where everything goes well, where people use a device in the way it was intended, and no unexpected events occur. The tricky part is to design for when things go wrong. Here is what should be done to avoid or minimise errors:

Keep design simple. Defining the goal and keeping things simple helps users to stay focussed on what needs to be done. Give the user clear information and remove confusing elements from your design.

Use white space. White space around design elements is very important. It lets the design breathe, guides user focus and creates relations and hierarchy between design elements. It is also useful to prevent a mis-click or mis-tap.

Add constraints. Limit the actions that can be performed on a system by separating module and controls that are easy to confuse.

Use confirmation and error dialogs. Confirmation dialog, for some users might seems like an annoying/useless extra step. But for anyone completing a new task for the first time, or even for the tenth, having a quick “Are you sure you want to do that?” message can be invaluable.

Do sensibility checks. Form validation is a great way to guide the user in the right direction. Designing a good form design can help users to avoid putting the wrong text in the wrong field, but form validation is a great way to double-check that information, catching typos and forgotten fields.

Undo. Everyone would like an option that allows them to cancel or reverse the last command executed in case of error. So, this feature should be included whenever possible in a system or app.


In conclusion, avoiding human errors in the design process may seem simple but can only really be achieved by keeping in mind design principles to make things easier. Following design standards also helps and last but not least, designers and developers should remember that they are not the end users. Alexander Pope’s quote continues “…to forgive, divine.” For designers and developers, showing mercy is not their prerogative for they have only been tasked with creating an environment where erring is minimised. It is the end user that will hopefully not have to forgive the creator.

#DesignPrinciples #DesignProcess #WebDevelopment #UX-UI-Design