Until humans learn how to command machines with their minds (or vice versa), we're always going to need some sort of menu, control panel or whatever to interact with our machines and tell them to do our jobs for us. And these controls had better be really freaking clear, and simple, and easy to use. A speedometer doesn't do any good if, say, it's mounted inside the glove box and requires you to do calculus to read it.
Yet in the real world, you run into interfaces that are almost that bad. The consequences range from minor workplace annoyances, like charging a custumer for a Happy Meal instead of a Big Mac because the buttons are right next to each other, to huge disasters like ...
#6. The USS Vincennes Shot Down a Civilian Plane Because of Bad Cursors
Toward the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, the United States and Iran had a bit of an undeclared war on the side, presumably just to make Iraq jealous. The most tragic event of this undeclared war happened when the USS Vincennes was in the middle of a confrontation with Iranian gunboats in the Persian Gulf and accidentally shot down a civilian airliner after mistaking it for a combat aircraft in attack mode.
If you're wondering why their radar system didn't have some kind of method for separating friendly planes from hostile, well ...
The Dumb Problem:
Actually, it was equipped with exactly that sort of thing -- the problem was that it sucked.
That's the interface from 1988, apparently being operated by a 15-year-old boy.
Have you ever played a war strategy game on the PC? An RTS game like StarCraft or Red Alert? In those games, you have your little tank or robot icon on the screen, and you click it with your cursor to highlight it. Then from there you can either control the unit or learn more about it (how much health it has left, or whatever).
"Fueled up and ready to g- *mute*"
Well, the U.S. Navy's system was not that sophisticated.
The screen showed the operator what objects were detected on radar, and if he clicked on an object, it would track it. But if the operator wanted to get more information about the object (in this case, by listening in on its radio signals) to find out what it actually was, he had to move a separate cursor and click on the object again.
"In order to see what direction the object is moving, you'll need a soldering gun."
It's clumsy and unintuitive, and it made it really easy to forget which thing they were highlighting at any given moment -- the operator can be tracking one object and have it display the information for a completely different one because he forgot to move the other cursor. It's the kind of user interface that wouldn't make it out of the testing phase of a cheap browser game. And it cost the passengers of the plane their lives.
That's because the operator in the USS Vincennes thought he was listening to the incoming aircraft (the Airbus full of innocent people), because that's the thing he selected, when he was actually receiving signals from a parked F-14 several miles away, because that's where his other cursor was.
"Patch v1.4 fixed a bug that occasionally leads to missiles being fired at planes full of innocent people."
Granted, the transmissions alone wouldn't be reason enough to shoot down a plane: They'd also have to think that it was moving like an enemy aircraft. Unfortunately, the stupid system made that mistake pretty easy, too. Instead of telling the operators at the Vincennes if the approaching plane was ascending or descending, the system just showed them the present altitude on a smaller monitor. The operator had to write down or memorize the altitude, wait a few seconds, then ask again and mentally compare the two results to see if the aircraft was going up or going down.
Because of this, a calculation error led an operator to report that the Airbus was descending toward the USS Vincennes, like a combat aircraft would, when it was probably getting the hell away from them as fast as possible.
#5. Three Mile Island Happened Because of a Light on the Console
We previously pointed out that the negative effects of the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island might have been somewhat overstated -- but still, if answering the question "Honey, how has your day been?" requires the phrase "nuclear meltdown" in any way, then you've probably had better days.
Via Wikimedia Commons
"You know what? I'm smoking a cigarette after this. Lung cancer can eat some dicks."
The accident was caused when coolant escaped the nuclear reactor because a valve was stuck in the open position, resulting in a partial meltdown and the release of radioactive gases. Why didn't they just close that valve manually? Well ...
The Dumb Problem:
It all happened because of a damn light. The control panel at Three Mile Island had a light to show the status of the relief valve that prevents the reactor from overheating. Light's on, valve's open; light's off, valve's closed. It's not that different from the little warning light that lets you know you need to put your seat belt on, only the consequences involve possibly rendering an entire city uninhabitable for all time.
"Meltdown, you say? Grab your bell-bottoms, baby, we have a reactor to stand really close to!"
But you'd think the signal would work in the same way as the seat belt -- there's some simple sensor that detects when the thing is closed, and when it's not, the light goes on. Easy.
Or, not. Unbeknownst to the staff, whoever designed the control panel programmed the light to go off once the computer had sent the signal to close the valve -- which isn't the same as when the valve was actually closed. It's a pretty massive goddamned difference, in fact, when the entire point of that console is to let you know if something has malfunctioned. So, for instance, if a valve got stuck open, it doesn't help for the console to shrug and say, "Eh, I told it to close. Don't blame me."
So, the operators didn't realize the valve had been stuck in the open position for a dangerously long amount of time. As a result, the reactor overheated and produced radioactive xenon-135 and krypton-85 gases.
And a horrible broccoli monster.
While there were no casualties, thousands of people were evacuated from the surrounding area, a nationwide media panic was created and Michael Douglas became a little bit smugger.
#4. Air Inter Flight 148 Crashed Because a Display Screen Was Too Small
In 1992, Air Inter Flight 148 crashed while approaching an airport in Strasbourg, France. There were many factors involved in the crash, the main one being a mountain. Why was the plane heading toward a mountain, you ask? That's probably what the pilots were wondering, too -- they never told it to do that. Well, not intentionally.
The road to horrific transit disasters is paved with good intentions and shitty design.
The Dumb Problem:
A two-year investigation on the accident concluded that the most likely explanation for the crash was, basically, a shitty, ridiculously small display screen. The pilots intended the plane to descend toward the airport at an angle of -3.3 degrees, which would have put them at a descent rate of 800 feet per minute and back home in time for Law & Order (or whatever the French equivalent was). So, according to the report, they likely entered "-3.3" into the autopilot and relaxed.
We'd watch that version.
It's two digits, what could go wrong? Well, have you ever used a program or device where you have a number pad, but a separate button that tells it what the numbers mean? For example, some oven timers let you punch in "20," but you have another button that tells it whether you mean 20 hours, or 20 minutes, or 20 seconds.
Or, if you ever used Photoshop, you have a place where you can punch in a number to make the image a certain size, but there's a separate box that tells the program whether you meant inches or pixels or percentage. So you type "300," because you want it to be 300 pixels wide, but you had the wrong measurement selected, so it makes the image 300 inches wide and your monitor explodes.
This was like that. When they typed in "-3.3," the autopilot happened to be set in the wrong mode -- feet per minute, instead of degrees. So those digits were interpreted as a descent rate of 3,300 feet per minute -- over four times faster than they intended. By the time the pilots noticed the error, they had a huge mountain coming their way pretty fast.
The thing is, the autopilot display screen gave no hints as to what mode they were using: Since it was just a two-digit screen, it showed the same "33" it would have shown had they been using the non-deadly mode. Even alarm clocks have more safeguards than that to let you know if you're accidentally setting the wake-up time for 6:00 p.m.
Which only rarely results in 87 casualties.
So basically, the entire accident could have been avoided if the screen had space for two more digits: That way, had they entered "-3.3" in the wrong mode, it would have shown up on the screen as 3,300 feet, and presumably the pilots would have had time to say, "Wait, no, that's crazy."