When Lack of Clarity Turns Deadly

I got very worked up watching a documentary on the Smithsonian Channel last night.

Like many others, I followed with fascinated horror in 1999 as a Lear Jet carrying golfer Payne Stewart and a handful of others streaked across the country, unguided, until it finally ran out of fuel and crashed in a South Dakota field.

It was pretty clear right away that the plane had quickly suffered a decompression event shortly after takeoff, and that the pilots and passengers were overcome by hypoxia. On autopilot, the plane kept going on its original bearing – silent, relentless, with frosted windshield and no hope of a controlled landing.

The investigation into the wreckage didn’t point to a single clear mechanical cause for the malfunction. But one preliminary conclusion was reached – in the ~15 seconds of clear thinking that the pilots would have had before being overcome by hypoxia, the emergency procedure described in the manual for this malfunction was more confusing than clear.

Bad design. Lack of clarity. Tragedy.

Specifically – the procedure failed to highlight the most vital first step of all for the pilots – PUT ON OXYGEN MASKS!! The troubleshooting steps outlined might have been technically accurate, but they were horrible information/user design – because, well, 15 seconds and you’re unconscious.

The troubleshooting procedures were undoubtedly written by engineers, not pilots. Not end users. Not people aware of the actual use case, like a very real decompression emergency at an altitude of rarefied air.

Of course, we’ve had a more recent high-stakes example of this – the emergency alert that went out in Hawaii about an impending missile threat. The cause: poor software interface design leading to human error.

I have experienced a boatload of awful interface/information designs, whether in printed directions, software interfaces, or system designs. Usually these are annoyances. But, in the case of a very public incident with a Lear Jet, it was deadly. And, in Hawaii, there was potential for panic – or much worse.

Happily, the end of documentary described how the FAA required ALL business jets similar to this one to revise similar troubleshooting manuals with the new lead message in case of decompression – put on your oxygen mask.

Most of us are not going to be responsible for this magnitude of disaster when we lack clarity of communications. But why would we settle for annoying our audience, when we can delight them?

I recently cut-the-cable for TV and decided to go with a Google Chromecast device, joined to the YouTubeTV streaming package. The entire setup was simple, smooth, and delightful. Some smart Googlers approached this entire user experience and decided that it would take the fewest possible steps, with the fewest possible necessary directions. It. Just. Worked.

Perhaps one of the biggest differentiators we should be attending to is: how easy is it to understand our message? How simple is it to buy what we’re offering? How easy is it to get started successfully? From software apps to employee on-boarding to flying Lear Jets – a well-designed user experience matters. A lot.

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