TOTAL EXPERIENCE explores designing for experience: its theory, its practice, and how designing for experiences affects us socially and in our personal lives.


  • Bob Jacobson
  • Paula Thornton
  • BOB JACOBSON is fascinated by the experience of experience. A planner and technologist, Bob has a Ph.D. in Urban Planning & Design from UCLA. He's been a policy researcher, technology CEO, science writer, and consultant. As a Fulbright Scholar, he studied cellular telephony's impacts on transborder communities in the Nordic Arctic Circle. Bob edited Information Design (MIT Press 2000) and is now writing a book on the theory and practice of creating edifying, transformative experiences.
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    CORANTE PAULA THORNTON says, "Understanding human behavior (economics), optimizing interactions (design) and facilitating conversations (markets), are the means to achieve strategic differentiation. This is the focus of our discipline. It is not a 'nice to have'‚ and is not, like documentation once was, an afterthought. It is the means by which to start a strategic discussion and the means by which to drive a tactical initiative. All design should be evidence-based."
    ( Archive | Contact Paula ) >

    (Courtesy of Mark Vanderbeeken, Experientia SpA, Torino)

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    February 15, 2006

    The Penumbra Effect: Designing the Bird-Flu Crisis Experience

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    Posted by Bob Jacobson

    A cosmic irony: in our technological, networked global society, the most immediate danger is migrating birds. The implacable avian or “bird” flu -- influenza virus A, subtype H5N1 -- has flapped its way from Asia to the Middle East, Europe, and most recently, Africa, where containment is virtually impossible. Next stop, the New World!

    Roast Ducks

    Because Nature is the provocateur, we're in deep trouble. People-made environmental threats, like pumping fluorocarbons into the air, belching billions of barrels of chemical waste into the rivers and oceans, or polluting the land with plastic, can be dealt with by changing our behavior. There is no way to curb sick birds in flight, other than to kill them.

    There aren't enough hunters to carry out this grisly task, so in a short time, bird flu will be everywhere. Every bird, wild and domestic, will be suspect. To play it safe, millions of birds will be slaughtered; the process has already begun.

    If bird flu makes a tran-species leap and begins to infect human beings, it will become a pandemic, a global illness afflicting every society, from which no one is safe; everyone is vulnerable. Whole societies shudder at the pandemic's impact. Our fragile global economy may take serious hits from the next pandemic that it may not survive.

    Before a pandemic actually strikes, people may start acting differently when they think it's coming. Or not.

    Some fortify themselves and their communities against the disease, undertake domestic public health initiatives (like those recommended by the World Health Organization), and give aid to already afflicted communities with the aim of curtailing the pandemic before it gains velocity.

    Others run scared. Overcome by fear, they fold up emotionally: give up on the future, become increasingly insular and reclusive, and simply shut down, economically and socially.

    The great majority of us do neither. We don't prepare and we don't despair. We acknowledge and move on. We do what we always have done. That's where most of us are at the moment, almost everywhere in the world. The popular experience of the bird flu is that it isn't yet a crisis; if and when it becomes one, we can deal with it. Life goes on, ooh-blah-dee....

    This is the Penumbra Effect and it varies from culture to culture. We don't perceive the crisis per se: we perceive the social reaction. The Penumbra Effect is the result , in the face of a potential crisis, of interactions among sources of information and our perceptions, cognitions, and behavior. Synergetic, the Penumbra Effect can catalyze a successful response to a crisis; or it can transform a mild crisis into a major crisis, and a major crisis into a catastrophe.

    How we experience a potential crisis, a condition that by definition we haven't experienced before (any of us, experts or laypersons), determines how we respond. This experience is designed through the cumulative interactions of speakers, writers, media professionals, politicians, health professionals, corporations, governments, NGOs, and the public. But no one is designing the interactions to produce positive, proactive results.

    Our experience of the bird flu crisis is the ultimate in poorly designed experiences. The popular press sporadically highlights infestations in places seemingly out of sight and mind: rural Turkey, jungle Nigeria, the vast eastern spaces of China. It tells us just enough to make us think we know about the threat of pandemic, when of course we don't. (An exception is the BBC.) Politicians -- including President Bush in the U.S. -- assure us that everything's being taken care of, again providing partial information. (UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is not so sure -- and Annan's been correct more often than Bush for the last six years, since Bush became President.)

    On the other side of perception, public health professionals tell us that while the situation may not be critical, it needs tending, now. (But their megaphones tend to be smaller.) It's a confusing melange of opinions.

    The public health professionals are swimming upstream against powerful heuristics: the “availability” bias that discounts unimaginable future dangers and the “peak-end rule” that magnifies past successes in overcoming crises. No one wants to imagine ten, twenty, or thirty percent of the people they know as ghosts (least of all, him- or herself)! I've had that experience. When I heard the news from Nigeria, where bird flu most recently alighted, the details of my day receded and one of three persons I encountered became flimsy -- a kind of reverse Sixth Sense.

    I can't find the resources online to build a Flu-Danger Awareness movement. Sure, information about the potential pandemic is available online; so is information about the Oscars and 40,000 great recipes. Perhaps there are chat rooms I haven't heard about, where proactive individuals are making plans to salvage our global society. I don't think so.

    We're in an informational limbo: we know just enough to appreciate the collective dimension of our dilemma. But we're constrained from collectively preparing for the worst, because we're unable to pool our responses except through distilled channels like the news. Experience designers who are busy building better websites and shopping-mall exhibitions might consider how well received their work will be after pandemic sweeps across an unprepared world.

    Failure to get the message right in 1918, when the last flu pandemic struck, resulted in millions of deaths in the United States. Maybe this time, experience designers can do better, helping us to understand and sensible react to our predicament. But who will make that happen?

    Comments (3) + TrackBacks (1) | Category: Commentary


    1. A Reader on February 16, 2006 12:48 AM writes...

    According to one web site I just visited, after searching on "influenza mortality in 1918," the true number of deaths from the so-called Spanish flu in the USA was from 500,000 to 700,000. In other words, just about the number of men killed in battle in the Civil War, which had occurred some fifty years earlier, when the total population of the nation was much smaller than in 1918.

    An Australian news site reports that the government there has done a study and the computer model predicted 143,000,000 (143 million) deaths worldwide from Avian Flu. This, in a population of 6 billion, amounts to 0.02 percent. In other words, not even a dent.

    Compared to the Black Plague of medieval Europe, wherein 33 percent of the population died, or the Irish potato famine of the 1850s wherein 20 percent of the population died, this bird flu thing is all but innocuous. Most of the deaths are likely to be in the third world, where sanitation is already poor and patients are already compromised with parasites and other illnesses.

    The biggest threat to the developed world is a massive recession triggered by fear.

    Permalink to Comment

    2. Bob Jacobson on February 16, 2006 8:23 PM writes...

    Addendum: Reuters reports that bird flu has been found in Germany, after earlier reports described its appearance in Italy and France. Britain and Ireland are on alert.

    Permalink to Comment

    3. Bob Jacobson on February 16, 2006 9:03 PM writes...

    I won't dispute "A Reader's" statistics. Estimates of 1918's deaths worldwide vary (50 million worldwide is commonly quoted, although there may have been massive undercounts in then-colonial regions), but only a small fraction of the U.S. population died. (The experience was harrowing at ground-level, however.) What was stunning was how many died in such a short time (one flu season).

    Those were different times, however, when people traveled oceans on liners. Today, although avian flu has yet to produce a human variant, airplanes speed the pace of transmission among humans if it does.

    All of this is beside "A Reader's" point, with which I totally agree: while the flu's toll matters, it's how we conceive and act on it that matters more.

    Permalink to Comment


    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The Penumbra Effect: Designing the Bird-Flu Crisis Experience:

    Bob Jacobson just published a thoughtful reflection in his Total Experience blog on how experience design can help us becoming better prepared in dealing with a bird flu pandemic. How we experience a potential crisis, a condition that by definition we... [Read More]

    Tracked on February 16, 2006 12:53 AM


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