The only philosophical UX thought experiment that matters

28 Apr 2018

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher. Image: Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock

To flip the switch or not? UX expert Gareth Dunlop offers up his take on a classic philosophical quandary.

Many late-night discussions over a glass of red have been buoyed along by philosophical thought experiments. Arguably the most famous of these is the trolley problem and its various derivatives.

Devised by moral philosopher Philippa Foot in the 1960s, it asks you to imagine that you’re at the controls of a railway switch and there’s an out-of-control trolley coming. The track branches into two: one track that leads to a group of five people, and the other to one person. If you do nothing, the trolley will smash into the five people. But if you flip the switch, it will change tracks and strike the lone person.

What do you do?

The question explores the complexity of morality by distinguishing between killing a person and letting them die. It poses a problem with implications for our laws, behaviour, science, policing and war. Differentiating between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is not as simple as it’s often made out to be.

It also forces us to consider what happens when we can’t have everything we want. We want to do nothing to save the individual and do something to save the five individuals, yet both are simultaneously impossible. Thus, it’s the tension between competing forces, prioritisation of decision-making and binary selection that elicits the awkward questions to animate the late-night ad-hoc debating society.

Allow me to share another thought experiment, devised by immoral philosopher Gareth Dunlop in 2018. Imagine you’re at the controls of a user-centred digital software project, with the design brief hurtling down the track at great speed headed for the user, ready to collect them and take them safely and efficiently to their destination. If you do nothing, you will really help users solve problems and have better lives. However, if you pull a lever, the project will change tracks, headed for a gaggle of awards judges (not sure of the collective term for awards judges, but all suggestions most welcome) to pick them up en route to a fancy venue, fuelled by champagne and canapés.

So, do you pull the lever?

Rarely can the project serve the user and the judge, because only in a tiny minority of cases can awards judges meaningfully put themselves in the shoes of users.

How many design awards does the most powerful commercial e-commerce platform on the web, Amazon, pick up? None.

What do you make of the cool graphics on the homepage of That’s right, there aren’t any! Yet 79 out of every 100 public service transactions are delivered through, with a customer satisfaction rating of 89pc.

Focusing on the user is hard and often thankless. It requires a ruthless focus on their needs and, by corollary, a hard-nosed rejection of any other dilutions of focus, such as awards and peer recognition.

Awards nights are fun. You get to drink champagne and show off in front of your industry peers. People want to shake your hand and know you better. On the flip side, you probably will never meet the users you serve so well. You don’t know their name and they are unlikely to shake your hand.

Consequently, very few walk the narrow path.

Russell Davies, former director of creative services at GDS (the government department responsible for the marvel that is, and his team dug the foundations for the narrow path. On one occasion, Russell was interviewed in an industry podcast about the success was enjoying, with his host gushing: “Well done, Russell! All of your KPIs are astonishing and setting new standards. Your users must be very pleased with you.”

Russell’s response puts all late-night philosophical design discussions to bed, once and for all: “Hopefully, our users don’t know about us or notice our design. They just use our service and get on with their lives.”

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy that helps ambitious organisations get the most from their website and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Three, NHS Scotland, Firmus Energy, Kingspan, Permanent TSB and Tesco Mobile.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.