Why Design Matters

Two new books illustrate why good design is crucial to keeping modern technology working safely -- and also makes people feel better

By Thomas D. Sullivan

In the early hours of October 26, 1992, the London Ambulance Service activated a new computer-based information system that would assist dispatchers by automatically sending ambulances where needed. As call volume mounted during the day, however, a faulty algorithm and an inability to identify duplicate calls caused the system to direct too many ambulances to some locations while sending others to distant emergencies.

By the time dispatchers pulled the plug, it was taking more than three hours for ambulances to reach their destinations. Newspapers claimed that at many as 20 to 30 people died as a result of the new information system. Yet a subsequent government inquiry report stated that "the system did not fail in the technical sense....[it] did what it was designed to do."

Kim Vicente's intriguing new book, The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the Way People Live with Technology ($27.95, Routledge), cites this tragedy as an example of what can happen when technologists don't understand enough about how their designs should work in the real world, with real people. Read it in conjunction with a second fascinating new book, Donald A. Norman's Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things (Basic Books, $26.00), and you'll learn how design fits -- or should fit -- into our increasingly complex daily lives, and what makes things pleasing.


  The Human Factor repeatedly underlines how both designers and users need to understand all the factors at play in complex systems. Vicente, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto who has consulted for Microsoft (MSFT ), NASA, and Nortel Networks (NT ), argues convincingly that using technology well requires a deep understanding of how devices fit in our hands, how easily we understand them, and how physical and social mechanisms affect the groups we belong to -- work teams, organizations, and societies.

He backs up his argument with concrete examples of design successes and failures, describing how technology, in order to be successful, must be tailored to reflect specific human factors. These examples form rungs on a "human-tech ladder," an ascending series of technologies and the related human factors that determine whether those technologies are ultimately effective.

The first rung on the human-tech interaction ladder is the physical -- for example, the shape and placement of controls in an airplane cockpit. Vicente relates how U.S. pilots flying B-17s, B-25s, and P-47s in World War II had a mysterious habit of retracting their planes' landing gear just after they landed, wrecking the planes.


  Lieutenant Alphonse Chapanis was assigned to investigate and discovered that the controls for the wing flaps and landing gear were adjacent and identically shaped. By installing a small wedge to the flap control and a rubberized disk to the landing-gear control, Chapanis solved the problem. Pilots could distinguish between the two sets of controls and then used them properly.

At the other end of the "human-tech" ladder are political factors. Vicente argues that public policies not only affect design but are themselves a type of design -- a way of arranging organizations to reach a goal. He cites the case of an accidental water-well poisoning in Walkerton, Ont., that sickened approximately 2,300 people (out of a population of 4,800), and killed seven.

After several days of unusually heavy rain in May, 2000, cattle manure (and with it, E. coli and campylobacter bacteria) was washed off newly fertilized farm fields into one of the three wells that provided water for Walkerton. The local water authority was late in its sampling of the water. When a lab reported one of the wells was completely contaminated, the local water commissioner didn't act and later rebuffed queries as people started to get sick. Days passed and thousands were infected before outside authorities knew what was happening and the water commissioner finally addressed the problem.


  Vicente argues that the local water commissioner must share the responsibility for the tragedy with Ontario's anti-big-government politicians. Their policies, he claims, eroded the Environment Ministry's ability to detect and fix substandard local water systems.

Emotional Design take a slightly different tack, exploring what makes objects really compelling. Norman, co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group, consults with companies to help them "make products that appeal to the emotions as well as to reason," according to Nielsen Norman's Web site. Emotional Design is a follow-up to Norman's popular book, The Design of Everyday Things, which focused on making items easier to use and highlighted examples of bad design.

In Emotional Design, Norman explores what makes things attractive. He describes how objects please us at "visceral," "behavioral," and "reflective" levels. He offers Apple's (AAPL ) iPod as an example of phenomenal visceral design, citing one purchaser who was so seduced by the digital music player's looks that he plunked down $400 on the spot -- "It was that nice" -- and considered its function almost irrelevant.


  What Vicente's and Norman's books share is an emphasis on the necessity of understanding and adapting to changing technologies in ways that benefit people. For example, both authors hail the aviation practice of crew resource management -- standard in both commercial and military aviation -- which obliges the co-pilot to check and question the actions of the pilot.

In older cockpits, it was easy to tell what matters pilots were attending to by observing which gauges they were looking at or which controls they were handling. Newer cockpits consolidate information on computer screens and have fewer controls, so it's more difficult to discern what's happening by merely looking. Good rapport and task coordination between the pilots has become more essential as technology has changed and is an example of a human adaptation necessitated by tech advances.

This human ability to figure out how to keep up with technology should make you feel better next time you're on a flight. It also illustrates how, even if you're not passionately interested in design, these books can still teach you a lot about how the modern world works.

Sullivan is based in New York and writes about design, architecture, and other topics

Edited by Thane Peterson

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