At the start of the twentieth century, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome began to be studied. A not inconsiderable percentage of children died suddenly, and there was no explanation for it. Since an external cause that would throw light on these deaths was not found, internal causes were sought, focusing the research on possible physiological differences. After performing hundreds of autopsies, they found that all the deceased babies had thymus glands of an abnormal size. The thymus glands in these babies seemed to be larger than what was in the medicine books.
Thus began the preoccupation about the size of this gland in children all over the world. Parents took their babies to the doctor for a diagnosis, and if the doctor detected an irregular size, radiation was applied to the babies’ throats. In the early twentieth century, radiation was the only known method to reduce an organ’s size. Its harmful effects were not known yet. As a result of this mass radiation in humans, two decades later, approximately 30,000 people died from thyroid cancer or leukemia.
As designers, our mission is to solve problems. We devote many hours to the technical execution of solutions, but I’m afraid we devote too few to the analysis of the problems we are trying to solve. Our solutions prove to be—in most cases—technically virtuous, visually attractive, but poor in the solution. Our first impulse when faced with an assignment is to sit down in front of the computer and generate documents, navigations, wireframes, PSDs, and thousands of lines of code. Radiation in its purest state.
My personal opinion is that in the user-centered design world, the best solutions come from the individuals or organizations that dedicate more time to reflecting on a problem. Am I proposing a fight of Thinkers versus Doers? I do not think so. Analyzing requires time: time to investigate, time to study and get to know your users, and time to digest all the information compiled and to create a solid working hypothesis.
Many of you will say that this time dedicated to analyzing is already a part of our daily work. I agree with that. But with this time, we have only been able to reach a solid working hypothesis. We need something extra in order to be able to challenge our own assumptions.
The meaning of the word assumption in the Oxford Dictionary is:
“something that you accept as true without question or proof.”
The acceptance of false assumptions makes us consider the wrong solutions in our designs. Indeed, false assumptions killed 30,000 people at the beginning of the twentieth century.
To find the explanation in the case of the deaths from cancer associated with the thymus gland, we must go back two centuries earlier to when the first medical schools started to appear in the United States. Students at these schools needed to study anatomy, and this could only be learned from the bodies autopsies were performed on. The demand for corpses shot up in such a way that there were not enough for that many students.
This need for corpses created a new occupation, that of the “resurrectionists“. They were basically thieves of bodies in cemeteries. The corpses that were easiest to dig up were those that were found at shallower depths; that is, poor people with limited resources. Rich people who had had a better standard of living were buried deeper and in coffins that were harder to open. Consequence: medical students in the eighteenth century carried out all their autopsies and wrote all their anatomy books on the corpses of people who had lived lives of poverty, full of hardship and stress. It has subsequently been proven that people with a high degree of stress tend to have smaller thymus glands..
The mistake the doctors made in the early twentieth century was not that they applied radiation to babies. Their terrible mistake was that they did not devote more time to questioning their anatomy books written in the eighteenth century
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