A version of this post originally appeared on meyerweb.com.
I didn’t go looking for grief on Christmas Eve, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it. In this case, the designers and programmers are somewhere at Facebook.
I know they’re probably very proud of the work that went into the “Year in Review” app they designed and developed, and deservedly so—a lot of people have used it to share their highlights of 2014. I kept seeing them pop up in my feed, created by various friends, almost all of them with the default caption, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.” Which was, by itself, a little bit unsettling, but I didn’t begrudge my friends who’d had a good year. It was just a weird bit of copy to see, over and over, when I felt so differently.
Still, it was easy enough to avoid making my own Year in Review, and so I did. After all, I knew what kind of year I’d had. But then, the day before Christmas, I went to Facebook and there, in my timeline, was what looked like a post or an ad, exhorting me to create a Year in Review of my own, complete with a preview of what that might look like.
Clip art partiers danced around a picture of my middle daughter, Rebecca, who is dead. Who died this year on her sixth birthday, less than 10 months after we first discovered she had aggressive brain cancer.
Yes, my year looked like that. True enough. My year looked like the now-absent face of my Little Spark. It was still unkind to remind me so tactlessly, and without any consent on my part.
I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault. This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them a selfie at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house.
But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or foreclosure or job loss or any one of a hundred possible crises, we might not want another look at this past year.
To show me Rebecca’s face surrounded by partygoers and say “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring. It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate. These are hard, hard problems. It isn’t easy to programmatically figure out if a picture has a ton of Likes because it’s hilarious, astounding, or heartbreaking.
Algorithms are essentially thoughtless. They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs. To call a person “thoughtless” is usually considered a slight, or an outright insult; and yet, we unleash so many literally thoughtless processes on our users, on our lives, on ourselves.
Where the human aspect fell short, in this case, was in pushing the preview image into my Facebook timeline without first making sure I wanted to see it. I assume Facebook only showed the ad to users who hadn’t already created a Year in Review, in an attempt to drive more adoption. So the Year in Review ad kept coming up in my feed, rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds but always showing Rebecca, as if celebrating her death, until I finally clicked the drop-down arrow and said I didn’t want to see it any more. It’s nice that I can do that, but how many people don’t know about the “hide this” option? Way more than you think.
This whole situation illuminates one aspect of designing for crisis, or maybe a better term is empathetic design. In creating this Year in Review ad, there wasn’t enough thought given to cases like mine, or friends of Chloe, or really anyone who had a bad year. The ad’s design was built around the ideal user—the happy, upbeat, good-life user. It didn’t take other use cases into account. It may not be possible to reliably predetect whether a person wants to see their year in review, but it’s not at all hard to ask politely—empathetically—if it’s something they want. That’s an easily solvable problem. Had the ad been designed with worst-case scenarios in mind, it probably would have done something like that.
To describe two simple fixes: First, don’t prefill a picture into the preview until you’re sure the user actually wants to see pictures from their year. And second, instead of pushing a preview image into the timeline, maybe ask people if they’d like to try a preview—just a simple yes or no. If they say no, ask if they want to be asked again later, or never again. And then, of course, honor their choices.
As a Web designer and developer myself, I decided to blog about all this on my personal Web site, figuring that my colleagues would read it and hopefully have some thoughts of their own. Against all expectations, it became an actual news story. Well before the story had gone viral, the product manager of Facebook's Year in Review emailed me to say how sorry he and his team were for what had happened, and that they would take my observations on board for future projects. In turn, I apologized for dropping the Internet on his head for Christmas. My only intent in writing the post had been to share some thoughts with colleagues, not to make his or anyone’s life harder.
And to be clear, a failure to consider edge cases is not a problem unique to Facebook. Year in Review wasn’t an aberration or a rare instance. This happens all the time, all over the Web, in every imaginable context. Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that Web design does poorly, and usually not at all. If this incident prompts even one Web designer out there decide to make edge cases a part of every project he or she takes on, it will have been worth it. I hope that it prompts far more than that.