Human Error

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Designers in silico (link to an essay on the OUP blog)

Having just undergone the relatively unpleasant, but fortunately rare, experience of having a shipped package from a reseller (in short, merchandise paid for by me) go astray, I am particularly sensitive to the matter of imperfect heuristics in the most banal of interactions. My concerns are amplified personally, because at one time in my career my income derived in part from having in my designer repertoire of skills the need to design and, unfortunately, implement user interfaces on computer screens.

In the case of my package gone astray, the Fedex Ground delivery route driver (I did encounter him the same day, because he managed to deliver the second package from the same reseller accurately) seemed harried and confused. It’s not surprising. These folks are required to deliver the day’s assignment of parcels before being able to quit. They have to account for every package, get signatures for those cartons and parcel requiring it, scan every single item delivered as to time and date of leaving it at its destination. And of course, all of this must be done accurately, that is, trying to ensure that the package goes not only to the right address, but the correct recipient.

All of this must be done, moreover, under the unique constraint of the carrier (and all of them are alike in this regard, but especially the major ones, because they carry the bulk of the freight and their logistics are particularly dicey as they have all those individual residential addresses to which they must deliver) being required to deliver within a certain promised window and, if the purchase cost threshold is exceeded according to tariffs and fees that have been negotiated to the fraction of a cent, they must do so at a contracted rate, with razor thin margins. In the case of sales over a stated amount (anywhere from $25 to hundreds of dollars) the reseller is picking up the cost, and the services are very competitive, but especially so these days as the U.S. Postal Service, in its struggle to reach profitable operations (at the mercy of a refractory congress, which otherwise takes up the slack of the cost of operations), is now carrying a lot of the water for the other two major national delivery services, FedEx and UPS. The most costly part of any route is the proverbial “last mile,” which is the figurative representative distance between the last rational distribution point and a recipient’s address.

In the case of my errant delivery, the package did require a signature. And the last mile, like all the preceding miles of transport, was being covered by FedEx Ground. The driver obtained a signature. Unfortunately it was the signature of whoever answered the doorbell or knock of the guy when he brought the package to the door of the wrong address, somewhere in my neighborhood (but now, four days later, I am as much in the dark as to where it went as any other ordinary shmoe just waiting for his purchase). The signature, according to the tracking data I am allowed to see as the addressee, was by someone named, apparently, Sshishaanna. If you know this person, please let them know I’m still waiting for the package they took out of the sweating hands of the FedEx route guy.

You’d think anyone accepting a package would, among other things, first check to see where it was coming from, especially if you weren’t necessarily expecting a delivery, and two, to check to see who in the household it is to whom it’s addressed. But no, we, in our general mindlessness, apparently just sign, scribbling whatever indecipherable nonsense appears on the crude screen of the tracking device the route driver hands you along with the plastic stylus that doesn’t seem to register half the time anyway. It used to be you signed and that ended it, but these days – and let me guess, could it be because more and more packages go astray and more and more efforts to trace the package fail because the signature is indecipherable, for starters? – if the driver can’t make out what you wrote, they ask for the spelling of the name you wrote. I’ll also guess it probably took more time for him to type in “Sshishaanna” than he took to read the label before ringing the bell.

I could suggest some things that, germane to the topic of this essay about how to make interfaces not only more friendly and efficient, but more accurate in the everyday contexts of costly logistics as the last step in the process of getting merchandise into the hands of the paying consumer. And this is true especially in these days of more and more retail trade being conducted on the internet, and with a lag (as small now as two or three hours, given Amazon’s intrepid advance to abbreviate the wait for your precious consumer goods) before what you’ve purchased is in your anxious little mitts. Why doesn’t that tracking gizmo that the driver hands you for your signature show in a conspicuous way the name and address of the recipient in clear and readable text with the caveat that you are about to sign for a package shipped to this individual and to please make sure it’s correct? That’s just for starters.

I don’t know how you train route drivers cost-effectively so that you reduce the kinds of imbecilic errors they perform routinely. And which even mistakes that result in sanctions they feel in their own wallets and purses do not encourage them to behave more mindfully in the performance of their salaried duties. But I do know there is clearly a great deal more to be done with the materials and technology at hand, which is being used anyway, and which would produce more and more accurate results (at greater cost-effectiveness) with the small adjustments that an informed methodology applied to the design of labels, device screens, and the mechanisms, both mechanical and electronic, used to ensure that the participants in a transaction are given the best chance of not screwing up. The untoward consequences in most cases are a small amount of frustration that most adults can shrug off, especially in a day or so. But sometimes the result, as this OUP essay adverts to, can be as disastrous and anxiety provoking on a mass basis as the goof that sent the entire population of Hawaii into a panic because of an alleged nuclear attack. The warning was an error of monstrous proportions in its effects, but tiny in terms of the mechanism deployed to trigger it on the simple assumption that no one who was thinking and paying attention would do absent-mindedly or in error.

The denouement of my package disappearance is that the reseller has to ship me another one, that is, as soon as they get more items in stock, because it’s back-ordered. Popular item you see. Flies off the shelves. Even if the cost is high enough that I get “expedited shipping” for “free.”

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The Pro

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes
Sometimes the old ways are best.

Sometimes the old ways are best.


Wednesday this week was a day I had been anticipating. November 11 was the announced date of the availability of a new Apple product, the iPad Pro, introduced in September to great fanfare (and my immediate optimistic enthusiasm) as a new generation of tablet. The tablet, especially the iPad, which is the market leader in a number of dimensions, price, popularity, performance, has been on the decline by the usual economic measures, not the least of them being growth of sales and percentage of corporate revenue for Apple. Nevertheless, the Pro seemed to augur a new stage of development for this particular species of device: a professional tool, highly mobile, that could be used not only to enable, but to facilitate creative innovation, from concept to execution for a world more and more populated by expressive and informative media that are digital, starting from the origin of an idea.

To be introduced along with the significantly enlarged form and screen size of the tablet are two ancillary or collateral or auxiliary input devices: a keyboard and a stylus. The screen of the new version of iPad is more or less the same size as the screens of the smallest laptop products offered by Apple, the MacBook line of computers. The latter are still, more or less, the only growth category in the slowly withering category of personal computer devices that are not strictly mobile. All this is to say that the world at large is slowly becoming dominated by digital devices that fit in pockets, however large and capacious they may have to be to accommodate some of the larger smartphones.

It was to be, and, for all I know, still is to be expected that new devices like the iPad Pro, as well as the hybrid Surface Book, which is Microsoft’s entry into what marketers like to call the “crossover” category of tablets qua notebook computer (the former ad man in me cannot overcome the impulse to recall that old joke, I think from SNL, “It’s a mouthwash! It’s a floor polish!”). It has a keyboard, but it also can be used strictly as a touchscreen device. It also has been designed (this is somewhat more true of the Apple product, but applies as well to the design ethos of the Microsoft product) to be that much more precise in its responsiveness and accuracy in the rendition of design elements: both type and graphic elements, photographic or manually drawn. To reinforce the perception of the iPad Pro as a professional device is the Apple Pencil, the company’s first venture into a discrete digital stylus offering (the doomed Apple Newton, in the 90s, had a stylus as a necessary adjunct to using it, but it was just a stick, not a connected digital instrument). The sainted Steve Jobs famously allegedly put the kibosh on the development of any such capability in association with the iPad concept by dictating, in an off-handed brief encyclical to the world, that a fingertip was stylus enough for anyone.

Nevertheless, in terms of technical specifications, it seemed to me that the Apple Pencil raised the product category of stylus to a new level of accomplishment for the engineers—or so it seemed back in September with the onstage product demo. It is responsive and significantly more precise in terms of the rendering almost immediately and visibly with the necessary synchrony of where the tip of the instrument, which is about as sharp (or dull) as a slightly dull graphite pencil or, perhaps, a Bic ballpoint pen, meets the slick glass surface of the screen. Beyond that it falls short in exactly the same way all styli on digital touchscreen instruments do. It is a unique form of recording instrument and must be learned to the expert level to exploit fully. I imagine the heuristics are similar to any new form of technology, meant to analogize an existing, especially what I’ll call a natural, form. Playing a musical instrument, or learning to perform arthroscopic surgery, or learning to perform arthroscopic surgery using a robot across the operating theater with the patient separated from the surgeon, flying by wire, operating a rover on another planet. All of it is possible, and any of these examples doubtless provides a context for creating new forms of art (in the broadest sense). In the case of the Apple Pencil, or any digital stylus, what it, the thing itself, does not do is replicate in any way, for one, the act of drawing on materials made of fibrous layers of something that at one time was growing: a tree, a reed, a young animal, flattened into a thin pliant sheet—so as to create a surface receptive to microscopically colored media prepared in a form of a sharpened stick or paint or ink, in short, material that may, at once, lubricate, suspend, and release the colorant as the instrument is dragged across the surface of the substrate. I mean of course ink, or graphite, or chalk, or paint, or dye used to make a record of one’s strokes. Whether it’s paper in its myriad forms, or parchment, canvas, or other kinds of cloth, or, alternatively, wood or metal or the stone wall of a cave, and with the laborious technology required to make these surfaces receptive to the colored material, there’s “tooth” to the surface which variously impedes and permits the progress of the recording medium onto the tactile surface. But there’s no way polished plastic molded to a point pulled across a glass surface can mimic the sensory experience of these phenomena.

I’m not commenting on and surely not denigrating the genius of programmers who have found ways of digitally replicating the act, and the result of the action, of nearly every technique invented in the entire history of homo pictor, whether it’s spray painting, pencil drawing or creating a cyanotype photographic image. However, it’s the result that is replicated, or at worst mimicked, and not the techniques or means to create the artifact with the appearance of a specimen prepared in the canonical manner. I could lapse into a very long digression about the increasingly resonant meanings and applicability of Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility,” whose increasing relevance to the existential aspects of daily life as time progresses in Western countries has a crescendo-like impact on my sensibilities at least.

But I think I’ll stick with what I set out to say, which is to critique the new Apple product, and to articulate why I decided not to buy it. The latter phrase will alert only people who know me personally and fairly well, know me for the inveterate and, I’m sure, sometimes seemingly unquestioning, wholly credulous, perpetually positive fan boy that my money and its free flow into the coffers of Apple Inc. would have seemed to attest in the past. However, the last three product introductions, for me, have proven a bust: the MacBook laptop (in three simulacrums of other kinds of metal than the aluminum of which it is crafted, including two tones of gold), the Apple Watch, including the version that actually is made of gold and priced starting at north of 17 thousand dollars, and now the iPad Pro. My first criterion is whether conceptually, especially as depicted in Apple’s devilishly alluring product videos, but, more importantly, once I can put the object in my hands, it instills that acquisitive impulse, usually fashioned in the compelling form of a felt need, as opposed to the more likely, and more accurate, covetous want. Without that impulse, I can’t persuade myself, even with considerable powers of logic, sometimes used self-reflexively, but still sophistically, that I should part company with significant amounts of cash.

In the end, what impressed me, after a full half hour at the Apple Store, unmolested and uninterrupted, with the iPad Pro, the Apple Pencil, and the so-called Smart Keyboard, was that these were products perhaps as expressive as any, if not even more so, of the Apple genius for slick design. But our household is filled with devices, none at the moment quite as new as introduced this week, but still representative of the same corporate ethos: tablets and phones, and computers, and music players, and dozens of accessories, converters, adapters and cables—and there are only two of us. And the iPad Pro is simply a very big iPad, and, despite Apple’s attempt to turn its size into a virtue, and for some, doubtless, a very large screen is exactly that, to me it’s clunky, and it has passed over some undefined boundary in my mind for what is an acceptable mass to carry around for a purportedly portable device (I hate the term “mobile,” and even more so as a noun; a wheelchair also is mobile—at the very least it must be conceded that it makes the person borne in it mobile when they would otherwise not be).

The Apple Pencil is now the premier exemplar of the category of digital stylus. Indeed, if Apple had lost its capability to trump all previous efforts by all other parties to dominate a category of digital device with the design and relentless rigor and simple beauty of it, I’d short my stock. The problem for me is that it is not that superior to the half dozen or so other styluses I have acquired, each of them at the time of acquisition the “state of the art” one way or another (and developed in the context of Apple purportedly considering category to be irrelevant pace Steve Jobs, who thought we should all be satisfied with the digital styli we were born with at the ends of the palms of our hands). I wish I still had all the money invested in those styli. They do work, and some not very much worse than the Apple Pencil, as Apple has no complete monopoly on clever engineers.

No I’ll skip it, and the keyboard, and the stylus, and I’ll reserve those discretionary funds, which I also remind myself I am very fortunate to have to enhance my resources for being creative when the mood strikes. There’s a lens for one of my cameras that I’m looking at, and am kind of fond of.

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