6 Disasters Caused by Poorly Designed User Interfaces
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 ...
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.
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.
"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.
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."
The Herald of Free Enterprise Capsized Because of an Open Door
In 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise, a ferry between Belgium and England, capsized, resulting in the deadliest accident a British ship has been involved in outside a war in almost 100 years. The cause? Someone forgot to close the door that allows cars to board the ferry.
"I don't understand. I left the screen door shut."
The Dumb Problem:
Hey, you know how in your car you have a little light that tells you when somebody's door or the trunk is open? Yeah, this ship didn't have that.
And even worse, in a car, even if you had no warning "ding," there's still a good chance you'd see that the door or trunk was left open. Not so on the boat -- its doors weren't visible from the captain's post, and the only system for making sure they were closed was called "assuming someone closed them." Unless the guy in charge of closing the doors came up to the captain and said, "Hey, by the way, I am currently asleep in my cabin and didn't do my job," the captain would start the ship and leave. Even if the doors were open and inviting in tons of seawater. Which is exactly what happened.
That's the gaping doorway on the left.
It's not like this type of technology was unheard of at the time; this was just 1987 here. Members of the Herald crew had actually asked management to install a door-position indicator on the bridge, but management dismissed the request, calling it "frivolous."
Although some crew members were clearly at fault here, the ensuing investigation found that the root of the problem was actually in the company's management for not listening to the crew members' concerns and not implementing a better security system. In the end, as punishment for the deaths of nearly 200 people, the company's owners were forced to ... change the company's name and repaint their ships (they were all acquitted).
Company after. The real victims here, people.
The Kegworth Air Disaster Happened Because of a Digital Dial
In 1989, a Boeing 737 crashed into the side of the M1 motorway near Kegworth, England. The problems started when the jet began vibrating, indicating that one of its two engines was malfunctioning. Unfortunately, the pilots got the impression that the good engine was at fault and turned it off.
Without any functioning engines, the jet became a large piece of metal suspended in the air and did what large pieces of metal suspended in the air tend to do.
The Dumb Problem:
Some months earlier, the cockpit instrumentation in this type of plane was updated to give them a slicker-looking digital design, presumably because someone at Boeing finally got around to watching Back to the Future and thought the inside of the DeLorean looked cool. The remarkably inept new design wasn't the only reason for the crash, but it was by far the dumbest and most easily avoidable.
At one point during the Kegworth flight, the dial indicating the vibration in the left engine rose to the maximum and stayed there for three minutes -- but the pilots never saw it, because it was too small. The older model had a large, clearly visible mechanical pointer that was pretty hard to miss. Here's a picture:
With instruments like those, you could bull's-eye a womp rat, no problem.
You can read those dials, right? Even if you backed up from your monitor a ways, you'd see that all those on the left are pointing to the upper right. Now try to find the "needle" on the new dials:
If you're saying "They're just circles, they don't have needles pointing at anything," you're almost right. Here's a closer look:
This is actually a better view than they gave the people flying the fucking plane.
See those three little lines outside the dial? That's the entire "pointer." The dial itself was already hard to see, and on top of that it had a digital pointer that barely existed. Now add that to the fact that the whole place was vibrating at the time. In the confusion, the pilots never saw the dials. Yes, the information was there if they went looking for it, but making the dials look stylish instead of readable made them easy to miss.
The Space Shuttle Columbia Burned Up Because of PowerPoint
Every disaster on this list so far happened in a matter of minutes or even seconds and involved people having to act fast and under pressure. Not this one: After a piece of debris hit the space shuttle Columbia during launch on January 16, 2003, NASA had two weeks to prepare it for re-entry. Engineers were called to assess the danger, and after reading their reports, NASA decided that everything was just fine.
Well, we all know how that turned out.
The Dumb Problem:
So how did the experts so badly underestimate the damage to the shuttle? Well, you know those danger-assessment reports we mentioned? The ones commissioned by the most advanced space agency in the world to decide what to do about a potentially huge disaster? They were done with the same tool a 14-year-old would use today to create a school presentation: Microsoft's PowerPoint. And, according to information design guru Professor Edward Tufte, that fact may very well have cost seven astronauts their lives.
"Hey! When you clicked the thing, a glowy thing happened!"
Why? Because this was an enormously complex engineering puzzle with tons and tons of data painting the picture -- it wasn't the kind of shit that can be conveyed by a pie graph and four bullet points surrounded by clip art. Trying to compress a complex problem into a PowerPoint slide inevitably leads to truncated or unintentionally misleading information. Sometimes that causes you to get a D in a community college business class, and sometimes that causes a space shuttle to blow up.
For example, Professor Tufte analyzed slides used in one of the reports and pointed out that the arbitrary bullet point hierarchy (an inevitable part of every PP presentation ever created) made some statements look more important than others. Like in this slide:
Every single word was programmed to spin in separately from off screen.
You see bold words like "overpredicted penetration of tile coating," which makes it sound like the damage wasn't as bad as they thought. But way down in the middle, in the tiniest of non-bolded print, you see the words "Test results do show that it is possible with sufficient mass and velocity," where "it" meant "total freaking disaster."
And see that nonsense phrase buried down at the very very bottom? "Volume of ramp is 1920cu vs 3 cu in for test"? Yeah, that actually meant that the debris that hit Columbia was 640 times bigger than the one they used for testing. But hey, at least the bullet point fit onto a single line.
"Rocket science isn't really rocket science, right?"
In a much more serious post-accident report, experts at NASA actually admitted that as the information in PowerPoint presentations moved to the top of the agency, key facts were filtered out. By the time it reached high-level employees, they were only seeing the good stuff. And let's face it: It's entirely possible that at least some of those guys just glanced at the headlines and thought "Well, that's a relief," then continued playing Minesweeper.
For more tiny things that caused big disasters, check out 5 Tiny Mistakes That Led To Huge Catastrophes and The 7 Most Disastrous Typos Of All Time.
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