Crisis UI: How does your user interface perform in less than perfect conditions?

I went flying a little while ago with my friend Matt. I had been talking about visiting a remote town in Wyoming and Matt offered to fly me there in his private plane.

avramc | Flickr via Creative Commons

I let Matt convince me that he needed to burn off some fuel in his plan to make it lighter for another trip. His plane turned a 4-hour car trip to a one hour plane ride (each way). Other than being buffeted by the ever-present winds in Wyoming, it was a very pleasant trip. Matt is very knowledgeable and easy to talk with. The scenery was, well… it’s Wyoming after all.

As we flew, I watched Matt carefully as he piloted the plane. Matt is just what you’d want from a pilot—careful, methodical and very thoughtful. He’s the antithesis of a daredevil. Matt would systematically move from instrument to instrument and make a series of little adjustments. He didn’t focus on one thing, but rather did everything because focusing on one thing would quickly lead to an unfortunate encounter with some sort of hard object.

For several years I have been having nightmares about the crash of Air France Flight 447. In June 2009, it crashed in the Pacific Ocean while flying from Rio de Janeiro to Paris. At around midnight local time, the plane was flying flat and level on autopilot when the plane encountered weather conditions that caused key airspeed sensors to ice over and stop providing data. Approximately 4 minutes later the plane crashed into the ocean killing 216 passengers and 12 crew. In 4 minutes, a mechanically sound plane (to the best of our knowledge) with experienced pilots went from level flight to crashed into the ocean.

In many modern planes, the pilots don’t control the plane directly, but rather their movements go into a computer that controls the plane. This system has proven safe and effective for many years, but it introduces a complication between the pilots and the plane—a computer. My car has a similar computer in it. When I step on the gas, I’m not moving a control in the carburetor or fuel injection system. Instead, I’m sending signals to a computer that manages the fuel controls to the engine. Most cars sold in the past 10 years or so do the same thing.

I’m certain the pilots were well trained, thoughtful people like my friend Matt and that the aircraft designers had carefully built a plane that could withstand many different failures without crashing. While flying into a storm during the dark the autopilot disengaged and many instruments in the cockpit went blank to avoid reporting false data. As conditions changed, the instruments alternately reported information and blanked out as warnings blared out in the cockpit. On transcripts of the cockpit voice recorder, one of the pilots is heard to ask about what mode the plane was in?

The big difference between my car and an airplane is that I can hear the engine responding to my pressure on the gas pedal and can look out the window and see how fast I’m going. I don’t know what mode the gas pedal is in. I can see the results outside my window.

In an airplane flying over the ocean into a storm in the dark, it’s very hard to look out the window and see what’s going on—you have to rely on your instruments. When those instruments start blanking out, you have to rely on your training and instincts to decide which instruments to believe and how to determine what’s really going on.

Let’s think about your products. Are you assuming the users are well trained and are not operating in a crisis? Most products I use have that assumption, but most users are not well trained (I can’t remember the last time I read a manual) and are operating under less than ideal situations.

Recently I was riding an airport shuttle while trying to dial my office. After 4 misdials, I decided to count the number of steps it took to dial my office, which is programmed into my “favorites” list. I counted 7 button pushes, one swipe and one scroll. Sitting in my office, it’s no problem, but I rarely need to dial my office when I’m sitting in it. On an airport shuttle late at night when I’m tired from a long flight, it can be nearly impossible.

Remember when the phone company started adding features to your home (wired) phone? Does anyone remember dialing *69 to call back the last caller? If you’re like me, you can barely remember who called last (and couldn’t see who it was) so you often ended up calling back a telemarketer you really didn’t want to talk with. Compared to this, it’s no wonder most people find cell phones easier to use and they’re more convenient to boot since they’re always with you.

How does your user interface hold up? Think about it carefully and not just under perfect conditions. Your customers are going to judge your interface under many different conditions.