Tech & Work

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Eating your own dog food

How do so many designers get it so badly wrong?

Written at London's Heathrow airport after a confused journey through the newly opened Terminal 5. Copy dispatched via a free wi-fi hotel service in Athens.

If I could be God for a day there are many things I would put right for humanity and planet Earth. Architects and designers of all kinds would be high on my list for urgent attention. How do so many of them get it so very badly wrong?

Suppose every architect had to live and suffer every aspect of their creations for at least three years before starting their next project.

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And suppose luggage designers had to travel a whole year non-stop with their own luggage, and ditto for the designers of electronic point of sale systems, mobile phones and security systems. These folks never seem to travel, live, sleep, do business, or serve customers with the stuff they design.

Over the past few weeks, Heathrow T5 has had so much bad press it has become a national embarrassment more quickly than anything I have ever witnessed.

I don't really see the need to add to the massive pile of invective to date but here are some basics. Elevators and escalators that don't work are inexcusable. We have been building such technology for more than 100 years and it is in everyday use planet-wide. It is a commodity product.

Then there is the basic signage that fails at every basic level to get passengers from the front door, through security and to their gate without confusion and the need to ask for directions.

And how about a PA system that renders announcements unintelligible. Who decided to put the speakers in the roof instead of at human ear level? I could go on.

Watch passengers struggling with their luggage for an hour and you have to ask, who designs this stuff, and did they ever travel anywhere? Then there are those hotel check-ins and supermarket tills that seem to require hundreds of keystrokes.

If only the interface designers sat on these desks for a month. After that experience I'm sure they would go back to the drawing board and do a much better job. Similarly, the designers of mobile devices that assume dainty fingers, 20:20 vision and, of course, perfect hearing.

It seems to be increasingly the case that great opportunities involving breathtaking technology get fouled up at the design stage. And all too often, it seems, people blame the technology rather than the implementation designer.

A simple solution to all this is obvious but something that seems to have been largely abandoned. Trials and tests with real live volunteers and actual customers to represent the depth and breadth of humanity are essential.

And of course this should be conducted before any large-scale rollout or service launch. It appears that this basic principle of getting it right seems to be increasingly abandoned.

In the case of T5, army personnel were used to test the terminal, and the opening day was organised as a big bang. But troops are used to following orders and acting in an orderly manner.

In contrast, getting tourists organised is like herding cats. And big-bang product and system launches are notorious for going badly wrong. The rest, as they say, is history.

A long time ago I ran into the basic principle of eating your own dog food. Today this translates into living and dying by your own systems and technology.

All I can say to designers is that you can learn an awful lot about your own fallibilities and misconceptions very quickly by suffering at you own hand.

Apart from watching and experiencing the work of others, it is the best method I know.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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