Innovation, Technology, and Life in the Cloud

George Watt

What opening an airplane exit door in flight taught me about design

Product and feature design thinking must happen early and must center on the human perspective.

airplane-doorRecently, as I sat waiting for a flight’s boarding to complete, I noticed an unusually high number of pinging sounds. It was a bit like what you might hear when passing by a Las Vegas casino. The pings (flight attendant calls) continued throughout the flight, and it occurred to me that the same thing had happened the past several times I had flown on that airplane configuration.

The flight attendants confirmed my hypothesis. They receive a large number of accidental calls on these airplanes. They believe this occurs because the call button is positioned where a hand or elbow might accidentally press it. Even worse, the call button is the same color, similar in size, and close to, the reading light button.

Though you might classify this as simply “annoying”, it reminded me of potentially more serious experience I encountered at thirty-something-thousand feet.

In-flight design testing

A colleague and I were working during a transcontinental flight when we heard an unusual, “SNAP! SNAP! SNAP! SNAP!” We looked up and realized a passenger was pulling on the exit door handle. Fortunately someone near her also noticed and was able to get her to stop. But why would she try to open the exit door while we were in flight?

She explained she was trying to pull the window shade down. On that aircraft, all of the window shades could be closed by pulling them from the top of the window to the bottom. All except the windows on the over wing exit doors. Those shades closed by pulling them from bottom to top. And directly above those windows,­­ was the exit handle—which pulled downward.

Fortunately, the exit handle had a safety cover, and the passenger was pulling that. On newer versions of that aircraft the exit window shades pull down just like all the other windows, and the now higher safety cover opens upward. That suggests that I may not have been on the only flight where this occurred.

Design-first thinking

Design cannot be an afterthought and, as Don Norman suggests, it must be human-centered. What was the cost of changing that window design? What were the consequences of the original, bad design? What could they have been? (I am very happy I did not find out.)

Even the apparently innocuous call button issue could have more serious consequences than you might think. There are cases when flight attendants may have to respond to calls even though it puts them in danger (for instance, during turbulence).

Accelerating innovation

Recently The Office of the CTO at CA Technologies launched CA Accelerator, an internal incubation program to foster and nurture new business ideas and to drive future growth for CA.

In the Accelerator, we begin design discussions early. And it’s not just about products that look cool (though we do like that). It’s about applying principles like discoverability (making what can be done, and how, obvious) and feedback (signaling what happened) to make sure our customers get the most value—and the least frustration—from our products.

If the former had been applied to the window, our fellow traveler might not have tried to open the door somewhere over Western Canada. But then what would I write about?

George is co-author of “The Innovative CIO

This blog is cross-posted at Highlights

You can follow @GeorgeDWatt on Twitter

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This site contains articles regarding entrepreneurship, innovation, and the practical aspects of deploying, providing, managing, and using cloud computing, and other technologies. I also share my thoughts and experiences related to consumer driven IT, social media, management issues, and about what some refer to as “soft skills”.

All works copyright 2009 – 2019 George Watt – All rights reserved.

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