In the face of a plumbing distaster, a botched solution evokes greater empathy for the distinctly human, often irrational people who use the products we design.

Fresh from sleep, in the first few minutes of wakefulness before my brain comes fully back online, I run a few simple scripts to help me start my day. I complete these familiar routines like I’m a robot programmed only for these tasks. Exit bed. Navigate to kitchen. Boil water. Make tea. Only when the tea is brewing and I’m seated in front of the computer am I capable of conscious thought.

On this morning, like every other morning, I grab the teakettle and turn the cold water on full blast to fill the pot.

Except this morning, not like every other morning, the spout of the faucet breaks off, clattering into the sink. Behind it, a geyser of water explodes, transforming my tiny kitchen into a decorative fountain. The icy water shoots directly at my face, blinding me for a moment and making it difficult to breathe.

Don’t panic, I think.

Scenes of past plumbing disasters flash before my eyes. They all seem to feature a stranger’s torso inside my cupboard, exploring the mysteries of the pipes below, ass hanging out.

To the shut-off valve!

I fall to my knees and frantically begin removing the items densely packed in storage below the sink, cold water falling on my head and shoulders like rain. The laundry soap. The garbage bags. The dust pan and rags and furniture polish. The hammers, and even an electric drill. All of these land in the growing puddle of water on the kitchen floor, so I can reach the handle all the way in the back of the cabinet.

It won’t turn.

I struggle with this balky knob so stiff and sticky from disuse. Nothing.

I stand up, and the freezing water smacks me in the face again. For an eternity of a few seconds, I’m paralyzed. Paralyzed by shock. Paralyzed with indecision. Gasping for breath and shivering from cold, I stand there, too stupid to move.

Should I go take a hot shower and hope that the problem will fix itself? Would crying help? Maybe I should call someone. But who would come over here so early in the morning?

I reach for the house phone to call the doorman. The water continues to blast me in the face. I try to staunch the flow of water from the broken faucet by holding the teakettle over it. With the kettle in one hand and the phone in the other, I try to hold back the water and dial the phone at the same time, a comedy routine I picked up from watching old I Love Lucy episodes.

This attempt to solve my problem fails miserably. I can’t turn to the doorman for help. I have to rely on myself, my wits, and my adrenaline-fueled strength. I have got to shut this water off.

On my knees again in the inch-deep puddle, I engage in a fierce battle of woman versus knob. I wrap the sodden dishtowel around the handle and try to bend the knob to my will. Nothing. I put on the dishwashing gloves, hoping their rubbery surface will help me gain more leverage. Nothing. Finally, with both the gloves on and the dishtowel wrapped around my hand, I turn with all my might, and at last I feel the knob start to give.

The absence of water is like silence. I pause for a moment to catch my breath then call down to the front desk.

When you live in a large Manhattan apartment tower and you call the building staff to tell them there’s a flood in your apartment, someone instantly materializes at your door.

Haki, the super, surveyed the scene wearily, a man all too familiar with the titanic power of a plumbing disaster to pull one from the depths of sleep. He stepped into the kitchen while I dashed to my closet to grab a sweater to pull on over my soaking wet T-shirt.

When I returned, he was in the hallway, stooped to pat my dog on the head. He stood up and explained, “Okay, Luis will be up in a few minutes to clean this up. Miguel will be up later to fix the faucet.” He paused for a beat. “And I turned the water off.”

I’d spent the whole morning spluttering water out my mouth and nose, and now the words spluttered out the same way. “No that’s what I did see I turned the water off I found the knob under the sink it wouldn’t turn that’s why it took so long I turned the water off I did that already that’s what I did.”

He stared at me, his face blank. “No. You needed to turn the water off on the faucet,” pantomiming the familiar turn of the wrist.

Right. The faucet handle. Why didn’t I think of that?

A moment’s shock and confusion, and a routine ingrained in my muscle memory disappeared. A task so comfortable, I’d performed it thousands of times, and yet I forgot how to do it just when it mattered most. Instead, I cycled through unfamiliar strategies, desperate gambits, a dozen bad decisions.

Designers dream of solutions to these problems, a magic wand that turns confusion into engagement and delight. But an instruction manual for my sink, even one filled with witticisms and clever turns of phrase, would have evoked hoots of derision, and pop-up boxes offering warnings or advice would have prompted wild-haired screeching.

Who am I designing for? The rational, composed, perfectly-in-control savant? The expert automaton, programmed to complete each task flawlessly? Or the messy, error-prone, distracted human? Remembering my own catastrophes, disasters, and bone-headed moves helps me be more sensitive to the fact that they happen for everyone—even the people who use the products I design.

Karen mcgrane

Karen McGrane plays nicely in the content strategy, information architecture, and interaction design sandboxes. Founder and Managing Partner at the UX consultancy Bond Art + Science, she also teaches Design Management in the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts. She lives in New York and is the author of Content Strategy for Mobile.

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Portrait by Paul Blow