5 MIN READ

Beautiful boxes

I doubt it’s ever occurred to you, but you’d probably imagine that sitting inside a Challenger 2 main battle tank in peacetime is probably a safe place to be. I wish that were true.

It is 60 tonnes of exotic armour but it is far from safe, and how I learned that, taught me a lesson about design that is still important to me now.

I was a young human factors specialist; I don’t recall how it happened, but I was asked to help with the seating arrangements for the commander’s and gunner’s positions as the Challenger 2 was being designed. This was a workplace far from my experience so, just as I would on any project, I asked for the opportunity to familiarise myself with the workplace, and to empathise with the people working there. I was invited to Bovington Camp, and allowed onto the training area in a Challenger tank.

Of course I had to wear the military fatigues, carry representative supplies and wear a helmet and respirator – typical for a period on active duty. Wearing the respirator was a tough one: it restricted your vision and your breathing, and it had an odour suggestive of a recent curry. Dutifully I put all this on and descended into the vehicle. I sat rather apprehensively in the gunner’s position and we set off.

Imagine this, I am about a metre down in the vehicle, basically sat in a basket that hangs from the turret and rotates within the belly of the tank. To my right is the gun’s breech – 3 tonnes of shiny, gyro-stabilised metal – moving up and down as we traverse the rough ground. Beyond that are the legs of the commander, who is sitting in his high position with his head just out of the open hatch. And out of the open hatch, I see a little patch of blue sky that tumbles about and I realise just how fast we’re moving over this rough ground.

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It’s too much for me, and I start to feel nauseous. I gulp air and try to relax. But we’re going faster now, the engine noise is deafening, we’re crashing through the landscape and slewing round corners. It’s no good, I’m going to throw up. I reach for the respirator, and of course it won’t come off because of my helmet. I pull my helmet off and suddenly the vehicle slows.

As the engine noise reduces, another noise takes its place; I become aware of some choice military-strength swearing from my commander, whose angry spittle rains down on me. Once I’ve filtered the swearing and extracted the meaning, it turns out he’s explaining that taking off your helmet inside a tank is not a good idea. In fact, it’s a really stupid idea.

He draws my attention to what’s around me, all the various subsystems of the tank – radio, intercoms, range finding and such like – all fixed to the turret walls in nice, neat boxes. Each of these metal boxes has hard, right-angled corners that now look menacing, inches from my unprotected head. I get it, and I get my helmet on quickly.

We have an eventful ride over the tank proving ground and I learn lots about the environment, tasks and people. On the way home, I reflect on everything and realise something about the way we design stuff. Whatever we design, no matter how big and complex it is, it is only ever part of an even bigger system. But to us, as we design, that part we are responsible for becomes our focus, becomes everything. We want to do a good job, which means putting a nice ‘box’ around it, to protect it and finish it off. And unless we get the chance to see it in its final location, we never get to realise what our box might mean (for a hapless, nauseous ergonomist, for example).

It seems to me we do this with most things. Our box, our design, becomes everything. We forget that what we’re working on fits into an ecology of other things. It’s natural… what we’re designing, we have some influence over. We can do nothing about everything else, and so the tendency is to forget it. The reality we create for our end users is sometimes fractured, complex, dissonant… but our box is beautiful. It is often this way with medical devices. I’ve been to the homes of patients and seen the array of devices dictated by their therapy. Each device different in how you load the drug and use it to get maximum benefit, sometimes significantly so. No apparent consideration of the ecology of devices and therapies. Each device is beautiful, the designers did a great job but I still worry about the user and their experience.

Occasionally, we get the chance to optimise the end users’ experience. To tweak the design and acknowledge whatever else the patient has to use in the management of their disease. I like to think our best work is done when we do that; but it doesn’t happen on every project. Let me take it a step further: I wonder whether all of us can imagine compromising a design slightly in order that we fully acknowledge the ecology of devices and therapies. That surely is foreseeable, and wouldn’t it be a great test of our user-centeredness? And it might avoid the next generation of ergonomists getting rained on by irate tank commanders.

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