The Responsibility of Design

by Karen Holtzblatt

December 15th, 2010

Do you ever get “the clutch”? You know what I mean—that feeling in your chest that THIS feature MUST be shipped or the product will FAIL. When a team member can’t let go of their idea no matter what the data from the customer, the reality of shipping, or the difficulty of the code, we give them a trick:

“Ask yourself: Will any small children die if you don’t implement this feature now?”

Usually people laugh—and start to see the “must have” feature is not really so critical.

Of course, if teams are developing nuclear power plant controls, medical devices, airplanes, cars, tanks… that’s a whole different world and the design team knows it.

Today we have new gadgets and apps that start out “helping” us in life and quickly become an integral part of life. At what point do these tools require a different sense of design responsibility? At what point can these applications lead to serious damage?

I was recently in Brazil to give a workshop. I met wonderful people trying to bring customer-centered design to their own countries and companies. This opportunity to spread the word worldwide is one of my favorite activities. As usual I attached a small vacation for myself and my husband to the trip.

We have driven and hiked all over the US, Canada, Europe, Africa, Israel, Central America, Australia, and Mexico. So we are experienced travelers in less-developed countries. But this time—for the first time—we relied on technology. And this time—for the first time in 40 years—we drove into a nightmare.

My husband is the trip planner. In the past we had maps, books, phrase guides, recommendations, advice from the hotel, guides when appropriate, and our trips were a little wild but successful—even though we never knew the language. On one trip to Mexico we went from Mayan ruin to Mayan ruin riding the rough dirt roads in our 4-wheel drive vehicle. Our funniest memory was driving through a tiny town tooling along what we thought was the main road and encountered a bunch of kids yelling at us and waving their arms. When we dead-ended into someone’s backyard and chicken coop we figured out we had gone the wrong way. We backed out wondering what went wrong. Now we saw that the kids were pointing to a homemade arrow indicating the real main road. So off we went, waving back.

Brazil to us was just another adventure. Our first worry came when our Brazilian hosts were nervous about our trip plans:  “What?,” they asked. “You are driving alone down our coasts?” “You are going to Rio? Rio is dangerous!” More dangerous than Mexico and Costa Rica?  Than walking in Morocco? we asked. “Well maybe not,” they said.

We asked others at the conference and got a mixed report. So we were careful; we had already downloaded the Nuvi Brazil maps so we were set. We Googled the route in the US, and again in Brazil. We asked the hotel in Sao Paolo where we started and they Googled the path to guide us. So we had multiple confirmations of our route to Rio.  We had our careful plans as usual. We had no maps but we had map confirmation.

We got in our Chevy sedan and started off to Rio.  Getting out of the city was stressful. Did the navigator really know where it was taking us?  “This looks like a farmer’s market!” “Are we in the right place?” “Isn’t there a highway?”  We were stressed, but we had been navigating together for years and stress like this is normal. In the past it looked like, “Do YOU know what you are doing? Where are we on the map? Are YOU sure this is the right road?” Stress comes with exploration of new places. But a side benefit of a navigator seems to be to give us something else to blame.

Once we were out of the city and into the mountains the land was beautiful.  I was tooling along the winding road thinking, okay, now we are on our way. We stopped for gas. The attendant seemed to be asking (in Portuguese) if we were going to Parity. We nodded and said, “Parity.” That is what passes for communication when you don’t know the language. But as we were pulling away he seemed to be shouting to us.

In some part of our brain we wondered, was he trying to tell us something—like the kids in Mexico? But we couldn’t talk to him so we kept driving. And, well, we had our navigator. It said to go this way—we were safe.

3.5 hours into the trip and 18 miles from the goal we navigated to a dirt road. We did not have a 4-wheel drive car. No books said you must drive a 4-wheel drive car in Brazil like they do in Mexico and Costa Rica. So I backed out. “This can’t be the way,” I said.

We checked our Google map print out. “Yes it is,” my husband said. We checked that we had set the navigator to “NO UNPAVED ROADS.”  Yes. We drove back the way we came hoping the Nuvi would reset itself Instead it took us to a “safe” place on the windy mountain road to do a legal U-turn, only to return us to the dirt road.

“That dirt road is the only way,” my husband said. The maps say so, he meant. The navigator maps we all rely on say so. The most updated maps in the world say so.

I went into the road. After a mile I stopped. The road was rutted and felt like a wash. There were rocks. “This can’t be the way,” I said, and I backed out again. “What do we do now? We are 18 miles from the goal. It is 5 pm.”

We checked the navigator again. We were like a ball in a pinball game trying to find a way out. We went back up the mountain again hoping the navigator would find a new way—it didn’t.

“We’ve driven dirt roads before,” my husband said. So we tried it again.

Five miles driving down the dirt road I felt like we were falling down the mountain. I was swerving around rocks and ridges going up on the side of the road to let a truck pass. I’m driving on a river bed, I thought. I stopped. “We are driving down a wash.  There are no houses on either side. We are alone in the middle of a rain forest and it is getting dark!”

It is 7 pm. The voices of our hosts and others were echoing in our heads about danger and attack. We could get stuck! What if the car broke down? What if we bottomed out? We were alone—in the forest—with no cell pickup—in another country—where we didn’t speak the language—with no food—nowhere near a gas station—and it was almost dark.

“Can you even get us out?” my husband says. Thank God for our Chevy—it took us the whole way out and then kept going.

We drove back over the mountain to the highway, set the navigator on Sao Paolo, and made it to the Airport Marriott after 10.5 hours. We never did get to Parity, to see the coast, or to Rio. In 40 years of travelling we have NEVER failed to get to our destination. And in 40 years of travel we had NEVER been led to such a state of terror.

At the Marriott we met some businessmen. “What were you thinking?” one said. “You went with no driver?  Rio—let me tell you how scary Rio is—let me tell you the story of the businessmen who were held up!” We were lucky, people thought, to come out of the experience unscathed.

But Nicaragua wasn’t so lucky. Google maps led them into an international incident. Apparently Google misrepresented the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica and was off 3000 meters. A Nicaraguan military commander, relying on Google Maps, moved troops into an area near the border and took down the Costa Rican flag, raising the Nicaraguan flag instead. This caused tension between the two countries. The commander justified his action by referencing Google Maps. A Google spokesperson said that the company doesn’t know the source of the map’s error.

After the trip I wrote to Nuvi wanting to tell our story and get our money back for the Brazilian maps. This is what they said:

Dear Karen Holtzblatt,

Thank you for contacting Garmin International. I am sorry to hear you are having troubles with the City Navigator Brazil NT mapping.

Unfortunately since the maps were already downloaded to your device there is no way to return those for a refund. Can you please reply back with the addresses you were going to and from and we can try to figure what went wrong with the routing.

Please let us know if you have any further questions.

With Best Regards,

What is the responsibility of a company to their users? Do we call this user error? Do we say it is just stupidity? Do we issue warning to always take a real map? Do we put disclaimers on the software packages—like cigarette packages?

What is the design responsibility of a company? What is their responsibility to find out how their products are really being used? What is their responsibility to ensure that “no small children die”—or are led into fearsome and dangerous situations?

Do we need to wait for legislation and investigation like the auto industry? Do we need to wait for death?

Garmin—It’s not about the $50. It’s about design responsibility. People and governments are relying on you for more than you imagined: foreigners travelling to new lands; people traversing “bad parts of town”; cars stuck in dirt roads; governments planning initiatives. Will you just wash your hands of it and say—I’m just a map provider with a voice?  Or are you ready to stand up and take on the responsibility of design?

Tags: design, karen

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