Sunday, February 14, 2010

on luge runs & user error

User control and freedom
Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked "emergency exit" to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.


Error prevention
Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.

Excerpted from Jakob Nielsen's Ten Usability Heuristics
for Human Computer Interactions.

As someone who develops computer-user interfaces, I have a professional and ethical responsibility to design systems that users can use successfully.

Sure there's money to be made by doing it well, but the money is simply an artifact that flows from customer satisfaction. In my business, when you don't look after the customer they feel like idiots because they can't figure out how the web site works. If they can't finish the thing they set out to do they hate themselves and they hate you and they leave before they're done.

It's true that there are folks in my profession who blame the user for not being able to figure things out. Fortunately this philosophy is growing increasingly unfashionable.

I am responsible for seeing that my user doesn't leave for any of the wrong reasons. If I blow it, my client loses a sale. If I continue to blow it I will lose my job.

The stakes are higher in Vancouver, where a poorly designed, high velocity luge run led to the death of Olympic athlete Nodar Kumaritashvili on Friday.

It's bad enough that there was an opportunity for Kumaritashvili to fly off the course; worse that there were steel poles in close proximity to the icy run where lugers customarily reach speeds exceeding 90 miles per hour.

It is reprehensible that the Vancouver Olympic Committee and International Luge Federation would issue a statement which, in effect, blamed the accident on user error:

It appears after a routine run, the athlete came late out of curve 15 and did not compensate properly to make correct entrance into curve 16. This resulted in a late entrance into curve 16 and although the athlete worked to correct the problem he eventually lost control of the sled resulting in the tragic accident. The technical officials of the FIL were able to retrace the path of the athlete and concluded there was no indication that the accident was caused by deficiencies in the track.


How wrong? See the responsibilities inherent in: User Control & Freedom along with Error Prevention, above.

(So wrong.)


I, Rodius said...

If there was nothing wrong with the track, why did they raise the walls after the accident? Very sad incident.

suttonhoo said...

oh yeah -- they have that figured out too -- from the NYT:

"Olympic officials insisted that the changes were not made for safety reasons, but rather to accommodate the emotional state of Kumaritashvili’s fellow athletes — a bogus notion."

suttonhoo said...

looks like there will be plenty of outrage against the statement. this just in from the WSJ:

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili expressed annoyance at the International Luge Federation Saturday for saying Mr. Kumaritashvili died because of human error and said a new luge track would be built in Bakuriani and named in his honor. "I don't claim to know all the technical details," Mr. Saakashvili said, "but one thing I know for sure: No sports mistake is supposed to lead to a death."

Derek said...

All in all a very sad series of events. What bothered me most is that, even if it is/was the fault of an inexperienced athlete, why did the ILC feel the need to blame Nodar in their statement?

The poor young man just died a few days ago...Surely they could have written a press release that didn't heap more sorrow on an already grieving family, country and Georgian Olympic team.

Anonymous said...

I think Derek is right, the Olympic committee could have handled it more gently.
I find it a little remarkable, however, that people are outraged by this unfortunate event. The physics of the luge are miserable. Speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour on ice with poor visibillity and amazingly you steer with your feet. Luge is not about safety, it's about courage. All of the contestants know this. The contestants push to the edge of the envelope. Saddly beyond the edge may lie death or disaster. And we the audience know this, it's part of the reason we watch.
The luge track didn't kill that athlete, we all did.
We watch in awe the courage and skill of the luge, and are inspired. The most amazing achievements of man often involve real and significant risk. It's tragic that this athlete died on the luge, but part of what made him great was his willingness to take big risks to achieve great things.

suttonhoo said...

I suspect they felt an announcement was necessary to frame out next steps: namely, someone has died on a track that others must now use in competition -- can we say that track is safe? their announcement lacked tact probably because they were focused primarily on CYA.

Interestingly, the track is clocking in at speeds nearly 10% greater than anticipated. Again from the WSJ:

"when designers drew up plans for the winding icy slope on the side of Blackcomb Mountain, 76 miles north of Vancouver, they anticipated speeds of about 87.5 miles per hour. During test events at the facility last year and in training runs before these Olympics, the lugers had been traveling at speeds of 96 miles per hour."

The track has been altered since the incident, reducing its cumulative length, and reducing those speeds.

I suspect we watch sporting events for the mirror neuron high -- research has shown that when we watch folks do exciting things our brains fire as if we were doing them. so yes, organized sports and the interest that makes them financially successful are certainly culpable, but that fellow died because he impacted with a steel pole that skirted the course. the course should have been designed to deter that kind of impact.

the designers had an inherent responsibility -- the preservation of human life. call me overreaching, but I believe we all share that responsibility, regardless of our day job. that we're each responsible for not killing one another is part of the contract of getting along in polite society.

the designers of that track failed in their responsibility.

suttonhoo said...

I guess a much briefer way to say that would be: Kumaritashvili signed up for a luge run, not an obstacle course. Steel beams weren't an anticipated hazard. The VANOC failed in their responsibility.

Elefanterosado said...

I once dated an anesthesiologist. He told me the physician's creed is simple: "Do no harm."

Harm was done when this track was designed purposely for high speeds that skirted important safety issues. Harm was done when a young man's grieving family received critiques of their son's Olympic worthiness rather than a well- deserved, humble apology. Harm was done when the course was amended, post mortem, while the victim continued to be blamed for the "error" that took his life.

Harm was done on a hideous, irreparable scale.

Anonymous said...

This track is not new, it was opened in 2007. Assuming the interview I read on a sports website had correct information, some 30,000 runs have been made on this coarse, and less than 2% of those runs have resulted in a luge, bobsled, or skeleton being tipped over. According to the track officials, this is comparable to other luge tracks worldwide. This individual apparently was the only one that managed to exit the track at this point where the I-beams are. At some point you have to ask the question how safe is safe enough. And I think that answer is different for a cradle than it is for a luge track.


suttonhoo said...

hey b1: that is new information -- can you share the link? everything I've read implied an untested track that Olympic athletes didn't have time to vet.

wet paint signs were mentioned.

did the article state whether competitions had been conducted there before?


Anonymous said...

This is it. Presumably credible.


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