A quick rant. The human interface with information systems in aviation.
When are we going to learn the lessons of information presentation in aviation? Is it going to take an effort the size of the Campaign for Plain English in the UK?
If you look across the mass of reference material we either deal with in our day to day life on the line, or the manuals that we reference during training, initial, developmental or recurrent, the way information is pushed in front of us is, well – less than inspiring. Boeing really must try harder in this area.
One standard quip that must have crossed the Atlantic must be, ‘if you have problems getting to sleep, open a Manual.’ You might get woken by the thud of the book falling from your grasp as it it hits the floor but it certainly does the job in reminding you to turn out the light.
Bored yet? Click for light relief
If the objective of our writers is to send us to sleep, we have agreed they are doing a great job; but what is the objective of a manual or reference volume of any sort? Why should they be thus when even a cursory glance at a magazine rack shows how the senses can really be engaged by good editing and page design? Were this subject only based around aesthetics, we could laugh it off, but it isn’t.
Let’s skip to the internet - without re-running the evolution of the web page, lets look briefly at the modern page and the function it serves. The Web Designer wants to engage his reader, getting him to stick at his site absorbing his client’s content; that is his mission in life. The money that as been thrown at this single objective is massive, heavy commercial research is funded to find just the page layout, font, white space use-age and graphics balance that will make you stick to a website, be it to promote a sale or hold onto you for greater things. Conventional print industry skills were the starting point, print publishers know their craft and the development path of their practice leads back to Caxton.
With the advent of the web page, the science has moved ahead with a focus never seen around the print industry; the internet is BIG business and ‘interest retention’ is the step that precedes the grasp for the credit card.
Jump to our heavily funded web design technicians and artists. Mr Mercedes wants you to buy his car. He is prepared to spend enormous sums discovering everything he can about the way your mind works, how desire for his product is generated and… how information can be injected directly, in the most efficient manner possible, straight into your cerebral cortex to achieve that aim. He engages research organisations to discover the relevant neural pathways and he monitors eye movement whilst you scan web pages to discover where on a page to best to place specific nuggets for your ready collection. He wants you to get an undistorted message, he wants above all for you to retain a clear picture of his product and understand totally what it is to join his exclusive club. Got the picture?
So if we have this wealth of creative power and research at our disposal, why, with something as important and exciting as aviation, does our reference material have a tendency to drop our eyelids so effectively? Why is information barely decipherable and poorly presented?
The creative desert that gave life to these questions has given a home to a malevolent creature that hides in the corner of our flight decks across the world. That beast is called confusion, clouded situational awareness, or the fog that surrounds complexity.
Back to the cockpit. It is a dark and miserable night and you are tired, you have briefed for the descent and approach into an unfamiliar destination. The weather is poor and you have a technical defect that has complicated an otherwise straight forward days work. Let’s say there are problems with the landing facilities, part of the approach lighting system is down which requires a recalculation of landing minima. Or something like that – you have probably been there…
Now, wouldn’t you like a manual that has been written with a narrow objective. That is, to provide you with the best reference source possible, a book that assumes that you are going to be tired, maybe a little concerned, lacking available time and robbed of a little IQ due to information overload, distraction or any other human frailty.
‘Our’ technical writers have produced texts and diagrams that are about as unambiguous as it is possible to be. Had you tried, you could not have produced a better explanation nor provided a better methodology for arriving at a correct answer no matter what the time of day or position that you occupy in your circadian cycle. Isn’t that the kind of book you want to be reading at a time like this?
But what of reality?
There we are, we have made the point that I have been struggling to reach. We are in the cockpit, perhaps assailed by problems but unfortunately faced with a sea of text, few if any diagrams and chapters that have been designed in a hurry by someone who walked just a little too slowly past the chief training captains office at the time a new guy was needed to work the manuals. Does this ring a bell with you, or are your manuals designed by the enlightened?
At one airline that I used to work our technical manuals were produced on a photocopier by what must have been a malevolent delinquent with a macabre sense of humor. About every tenth page was practically illegible. Still wondering what I am talking about?
Ever had to program a VCR relying on just the instructions? Do you look at Apple’s design philosophy and sigh with relief?
If you have a cockpit conversation about fuel policy with your colleague and he pulls out either a textual re-write of the policy that he’s deciphered, an algorithm, or a series of diagrams but NOT the company manual, you know exactly where I’m coming from.
Here are a few more:
En-Route charts that have so much information crammed into the square inch that they are utterly useless. Even with a magnifying glass.
Systems of information management of the type that force you to look through two manuals to extract a single piece of information – say the name of a blue circle (airport) on an navigation display (ND) somewhere in the wilderness of Turkey or Siberia.
AIS information presented as continuous sheets of textual blurb. No highlights, emphasis, diagrams or sensible pagination. A picture is worth a thousand words….
A final question.
Do you remember the Singapore Airlines Taipei accident of October 2000?
I wonder, did those pilots on that dark and stormy night have a picture of the work in progress in front of them marked up to illustrate the situation on the airport. To remind you, they lined up (at night during a typhoon) on a runway that was out of service (under maintenance) and commenced a takeoff that ultimately led them to collide with a runway full of machinery, trucks and ground equipment.
Was a ‘sea of text’ actually instrumental in killing people that night?