There’s a poem written in the late 1800s by Joseph Malins about townspeople living near the edge of a cliff. (Googling brings up a number of different versions). Because people kept falling over the edge, the citizens decided something had to be done. Two solutions were put forth: build a fence at the top of the cliff, or put an ambulance at the bottom of the valley.

In the poem, the vote came out in favor of the ambulance. After all, the slip over the cliff only might happen. But once someone falls, well, there’s real damage to take care of.

As crazy as it sounds, in real life we see examples of this type of thinking all around us. We see it when products are developed without thoughtful design. We see it when products are released without adequate testing. We see it when software offers us choices with no indication that one might be wrong—until we get an error message after choosing the wrong option. And the cost of correcting a mistake is virtually always higher than preventing it—often exponentially.

In an earlier post, I asserted that design is about solving problems. That’s true, but I think it goes further. Good design makes the right path clear and minimizes the chances of going down the wrong path. In other words, good design stops problems from happening in the first place.