Poor Design? Blame the User!

As I was traveling through Canada last week I was struck by an article in the Globe and Mail – “Track designers defend Whistler course” – in which the designers of the Winter Sliding Centre suggest that the unfortunate accident that resulted in the death of Georgian athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili was caused by human error and not any negligence of the track designers themselves (here) and (here)

Mr. Baranowski said he still can’t quite understand how Mr. Kumaritashvili lost control of his sled on the final turn during training Friday and catapulted off into the pole. He’s convinced the track was not unsafe and that all proper safety measures were in place.

“It’s human error,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary accident.”

Mr. Baranowski also helped build the track for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and says the Whistler track is faster in part because some of the curves are steeper. The steepest have a 20-per-cent grade, compared to 15 per cent at Salt Lake City.

“At every Olympic Games they try to make these tracks more competitive and more interesting,” Mr. Baranowski said. “But once the speed creeps up, everything changes.”

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we experienced similar events as a detour was added to the Bay Bridge as part of a seismic retrofit project. The detour included a dangerous S-curve which requires commuters to slow down from 50mph to 40mph. The S-curve has resulted in dozens of accidents, impacting tens of thousands of commuters and resulted in the death of a truck driver that plunged off the side of the bridge in November of last year. It has been determined that the driver had only been traveling 10mph above the posted speed limit. As is the case with the Olympic tragedy the designers of the Bay Bridge S-Curve have determined there is no fundamental flaw in their design and in all cases the accidents were a result of “human error”. (here)

“We don’t believe the roadway design is the issue,” Cross said. “There’s just a small percentage of people who choose to ignore the posted speed limit.”

Caltrans also believes the problem is drivers’ speed rather than the S-curve itself, agency spokesman Bob Haus said.

“Nothing is wrong with the design,” he contended. “Drivers simply need to slow down. Every single accident has been the result of speed.”

These are terrible tragedies and I do not wish to make light of them, but they highlight a material flaw in our collective thinking regarding design. We can easily apply this attitude of “human error” to the technology area as well.

We design systems that enable users to negatively impact their productivity and experience. We develop consumer grade wireless access points but ship with security disabled, we deliver web browsers that are tightly integrated into the OS so that user actions on the Internet impact the underlying OS. We enable ease of use over controls, we tend towards UI polish over architectural integrity. In many cases the user is left to fend for themselves based on poor design choices and when that happens we cry “human error. Ultimately we are designing our own fate.


2 thoughts on “Poor Design? Blame the User!

  1. ‘Broken as designed’

    I think though, that luge drivers are well aware that if the leave the track, they have a fair chance of getting killed. (When I road raced motorcycles for a hobby, I watched co-racers get leave the track and get killed at a rate of about 1 death per 150 racers per race season – certainly often enough that I couldn’t ignore the risk.)

    I also think that ordinary drivers have a fair chance of reading a 40mph sign and selecting a reasonable speed based on the signage.

    With desktop security, I don’t think that we have skilled luge-drivers who are aware of the risks and we don’t have anything resembling good signage. Desktop users then are neither experts who are aware of the risk they are taking, nor are they guided by drivers training, signage, laws and rules that govern the road.

    They’re screwed.

    • Hey Michael,

      I agree with your thoughts as it relates to desktop security. I am not an expert on civil engineering nor the dynamics of Luge. But the problem with the S-Curve is that the signs were not that visible and you had a situation where current speed limits were reduced with limited detail, the CHP and Caltrans hsa admitted as such by their actions which included adding additional lighting, signs and more broadcast messages about the dangers of the curve. In terms of the Luge, while I don’t think the intention was to leave the track. It appears that the track was left because the track was unsafe – essentially the poor design of the track resulted in the accident. but again I am not an expert in either area


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