Much analysis brings triumph, little analysis brings disaster


Prince Philip on Design

H.R.H. Prince Philip shared his genuine frustration with poor design in this insightful interview upon the 50th anniversary of the Prince Philip Designers Prize.  He believes that consumers have become too tolerant of bad design.  The next time I’m trying to squirm between the entertainment unit and the wall, with a cable between my teeth, a flashlight in one hand and a wiring diagram in the other, I’ll take comfort in knowing that even the Royal Family shares my pain!

Link to the interview on YouTube

Asked about how design has changed over the past 50 years, Prince Philip replied that the trend to design by corporate or government committee has reduced the chances of producing exceptional designs.

He also feels that designers on contract create more innovative designs than staff designers.   This is because a contractor knows that her employment is temporary, while an employee always fears that hers is!  Thus employee designers are inclined to play it safe by complying with their employer’s opinions rather than truly expressing themselves.  He has observed that success results from giving a designer the authority to make design decisions. I would call this concept "empowerment" and say it's still all too rare, despite being a popular management buzzword.


Seth Godin shows how “This Is Broken”

Seth Godin is a prolific author and blogger on marketing and other business subjects.  This is his hilarious presentation about how poor design turns off customers.  So many things to learn from here!  How can we make these flaws look as obvious to us at the design phase as they look to the user of the finished product?

Link to the video: Seth Godin at Gel 2006 from Gel Conference on Vimeo.


They Didn’t Teach Me Design in Engineering School

They didn’t teach design when I went to engineering school.* It wasn’t until after graduating and beginning work that I was faced with the challenge of coming up with brand new solutions for problems.  Figuring out where to start is always the hardest part.  A blank document can be the scariest thing in the world!

I once worked with an architect and it was enlightening.  You might think there’s a lot of similarity between architects and engineers, but if you do, you’re wrong.


Push, Pull, or imitate Maxwell Smart?

Identical handles on both sides of a door at a shopping mall

Efficient or lazy? The designer used the same handles on both sides of these doors. The little "PUSH" and "PULL" signs are required reading! Doors are simple - why do designers force us to read instructions to use them?

Have you ever been confused by a door? Push or pull? Which side opens? Is it locked? It’s not your fault! The designer screwed up.

If you’re running a shopping mall or a store or an office, you need customers to come into your building. Unless it has a drive-through or a take-out window, that’s a necessary requirement for business. It’s amazing how often a poor customer experience starts right here. Designers have no excuses. It’s not like doors are new technology. Everybody’s seen and used lots. There must be some best practices guide out there somewhere.

Nobody likes being embarrassed, but it’s hard to look good when you’re colliding with a door that swings opposite to what you were expecting. Do you not tense up when approaching a bank of doors in a large building? Many of us have even developed coping mechanisms just for this situation. I employ logic: look for the hinges and try to devise how the door operates. One of my friends aims between two doors, simultaneously pulling on one and pushing the other. Others hesitate to observe and then imitate the successful users.


Real or Artificial?

My Artificial Christmas Tree and I wish you a very Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Real or artificial?  When it comes to Christmas trees, this is an ongoing and contentious debate.  I’m a hard-core proponent of the artificial tree for the following reasons:

Some assembly required

Not much appeals more to an engineer than the opportunity to assemble something, especially when it comes in kit form and is guaranteed to go together smoothly!  Modular construction – sweet!  IKEA furniture looks like IKEA furniture, it’s true, but man is it fun to put together!  Assembling a Christmas tree could only be better if some special tools were required.

The first family tree consisted of a green wooden pole and individual branches.  Some of my fondest Christmas memories are of Dad bringing out that great big box and letting us help sort out the branches.  The branches were colour-coded with a little bit of paint at the base of the stem.  Trying to differentiate between ‘red’ and ‘copper’ was a challenge I looked forward to each year.  Later, my siblings and I were allowed to drag the box out of the crawlspace and assemble the tree by ourselves.  This was probably a greater privilege than being able to use the car.  My parents might still be using that tree if the crawlspace hadn’t flooded, turning the box to pulp and making a mess of the tree.

Unfortunately, Christmas tree design has advanced considerably and the tree I obtained for my first house is an umbrella style.  It does have three sections, but most of the thrill of assembly has been removed.  I am left to admire this improvement and wax nostalgic about the good ol’ days when I had to install each individual branch.  Almost makes me with I had grandkids to tell the story to.

Filed under: Rants Continue reading

Nothing Good Ever Happened In A Box Canyon

CASA 212 in Afghanistan

CASA 212 performing an air drop in Afghanistan

The investigation into a 2004 accident raises many questions, and disturbingly, it doesn’t provide any answers.  Would your company work safely if there were no enforcement?  How safely would you work if you knew no one was watching?  Does your safety depend on people who no one is watching?

A U.S. airline was contracted by the U.S. government to provide cargo and passenger service in Afghanistan.  Legally, they were under U.S. regulations.  Practically, they were unregulated, as there were no inspectors in Afghanistan.

One morning a flight crew decided to fly into the mountains, instead of around them, just for fun.  They ended up flying into a box canyon.  ‘“At 0803:21, the first officer stated, “yeah you’re an x-wing fighter star wars man,” and the captain replied, “you’re [expletive] right. this is fun.”’* Less than 20 minutes later, as the crew attempted a 180º turn, the plane hit the canyon wall.


Let’s See What This Baby Can Do!

Bombardier CRJ-200

Bombardier CRJ200

One sometimes hears, “The only thing faster than a company truck is a rental!” The Canadair Regional Jet 200 (CRJ200) can carry up to 50 passengers and is capable of altitudes greater than 41,000 feet (12,497 metres). Capable of 41,000 feet in the same sense as the average pickup truck is capable of 96 mph (155 km/h) – you can do it, but there’s no valid reason to.

A “repositioning flight” is when a passenger aircraft is moved from one airport to another without passengers. Some pilots see this as an opportunity to fly aggressively and enjoy testing the limits of the airplane. Several accidents prove that sometimes they end up exceeding their own limits.

Having just reached 41,000 feet, the captain told air traffic control, “We don’t have any passengers on board so we decided to have a little fun and come on up here.” The plane impacted the ground less than 25 minutes later.


Can Too Much Privacy Kill You?


Beech A100 King Air Instrument Panel

It’s not unusual for an employer to check the references of a job applicant.  Unfortunately, it is unusual for those references to be useful.  Privacy legislation and the threat of lawsuits make many afraid to provide a complete and open evaluation of a former employee.  Read about this accident and see if you agree that privacy can create a significant safety hazard.

At Airline #1, a pilot was employed as a first officer.  He was reprimanded four times over two years for not following procedures.  Airline #1 gave him a letter of reference stating that he had performed well.

Airline #2 hired the pilot as a captain and then demoted him to first officer for repeatedly violating standard operating procedures (SOPs).


When Deviation Becomes the Norm

Beech A100 King Air

Beech A100 King Air

A recent crash investigation yielded some very useful insights into why workers deviate from procedures. This analysis applies to any workplace that relies on procedures for safe and reliable outcomes.

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are a quality assurance tool. In the context of this posting, they define parameters for working safely. Procedures can be perceived to reduce productivity and it seems to be a natural human tendency to deviate from them. Such deviations do not have to be malicious violations (e.g. motivated by laziness or cheating), they can be well-meaning attempts to manage a high workload (including task saturation), to simplify complexity, or to cope with situations not envisaged when the procedures were developed.

With sufficient repetition, deviations can become routine and workers stop recognizing their actions as deviations. The threat of punishment is not a deterrent because these deviations are no longer deliberate (workers don’t decide to risk punishment by deviating, they no longer realize they are deviating). Supervision is the only way to detect deviations and bring them to the attention of workers. Investigating the causes of such deviations can also help improve procedures to reduce the incentive for future deviation.


Part 10: Conclusion – Shuttle Crew Safety Could Be Improved

Cutaway of Orion capsule

The Shuttle's replacement: the Orion capsule

Some things have changed for the better.  Debris from the Space Shuttle Challenger was dumped into an abandoned missile silo.  Out of sight, out of mind, perhaps.  Even the data was not catalogued for use in further investigations.  The Spacecraft Crew Survival Integrated Investigation Team (SCSIIT) lamented that, “The lack of debris for comparison and methods of data preservation made the Challenger data essentially unavailable for this investigation.”

Not so with the debris and data from Columbia.  Both have been preserved to allow further investigation and research into the development of future spacecraft and crew survival equipment.  Given the timing of the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report, the SCSIIT members might not have had any other option to make their work meaningful.  Design of space vehicles for the Constellation program, which are to take astronauts to the Moon and possibly to Mars, has already begun.

On the other hand, as a result of the Challenger accident, NASA made some substantial changes to improve the survivability of a Space Shuttle accident.  Unfortunately, the Columbia accident does not appear to have initiated much in the way of further improvements, despite a demonstrated need to do so.  Following the report of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the Shuttles were returned to service, not waiting for the Columbia Crew Survival Investigation Report.



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