Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A380 - how to spend €billions and still get simple things wrong

lancerlord@tomorrow.sg picks up on a Telegraph article asking "why are there still ashtrays in the Airbus A380?"

Good question, but not the only example of seemingly stupid "missed opportunities" to innovate in the A380.

One of the first I noticed was the new positioning of the inflight entertainment controller in the seat back. At first it seems perfect, since it avoids the accidental activation which is a real problem when the controller is built into the armrest (which is the case in most other cabin fitouts I've seen).

But then consider the way it is oriented - mounted on the side. This results in a classic failure to "get the mappings right" (one of Norman's design rules in "The Psychology of Everyday Things"). If you use the controller without removing it from its holder (which turns out to be a very handy usage), then you need to transpose the controls 90°. Up means right, down means left etc. Ironically, when the controller is mounted in the armrest, the horizontal layout tends to "get the mappings right" if you use it in-situ because of the way the hand is positioned.


It could have been so perfect if the controller designers were collaborating with the seat designers, with a clear focus on usability. The controller could be mounted vertically, or redesigned for a side-side layout.

As it is, a missed opportunity to produce the very best design. And a very, very minor usability problem is one of my lasting impressions of my first A380 flight, overshadowing all the billions of euros invested in the plane.

What else? Well, I'm surprised they persist in using the special 2-prong audio jack. I'm sure there's some weird logic about discouraging passengers from nicking the headsets (even though policing headset issue and collection still seems to rate as one of the cabin staffs' most important duties!)

But as I look around the cabin more and more people are using their own earphones. The ones that aren't probably forget to bring the special adapter. For planes like the A380 starting their service life in the 21st century, I'd expect it would be the norm for most air travellers to be carry a headset of some description, and it would make sense for cabin designers to take advantage of the fact and use standard audio sockets, and provide headsets "by exception". Win-win: passengers get to use their own familiar headsets without needing an adapter, and cabin crew get to save time for more important things.

See, I can get cranky about the smallest details;-)

Expect users to be just as critical, nitpicking and cranky about the software we give them! And rightly so... it doesn't really matter how much time and money has been invested if you don't get the simple things right.

7 comments:

Gary Myers said...

To be fair, the ashtray isn't really a 'missed opportunity' but regulatory compliance.

Paul said...

Hi Gary. I glossed that point which was made in the Telegraph article. It seems to be a bit of a myth though. Federal Aviation Regulations Part 23, Airworthiness Standards : Normal, Utility, Acrobatic and Comuter
Category Airplanes
state If smoking is to be prohibited, there must be a placard so stating, and if smoking is to be allowed
(1) There must be an adequate number of selfcontained, removable ashtrays; [...]

Gowri Sivaprasad said...

I think its unfair to blame Airbus, the A380 manufacturer for these issues. The inside of the cabin is complete controlled by the airline. If you still seeing two pronged headsets and alignment of the remotes, its the airline that made the choice. Airbus only makes what they call the "airframe".

Paul said...

You are quite right Gowri, the airlines determine the cabin fitout, and if I was in a mood to be fair then I would absolve Airbus of all responsibility. But I was in a mood to be cranky;-) Even though I didn't explicityl say who was to blame, I'm sure Airbus have significant sway over the fitouts ... and if they don't, then they should, because it _will_ reflect on them anyway and come back to their bottom line.

My main point was to highlight some simple design deficiencies and how they can creep into even the biggest budget, most complex project possible. The division of responsibilities between manufacturer and airline just make that equation more complex... and I think that represents one of the main design challenges we face these days.

Taking this back to the software realm, I have seen many instances where there seems to be general agreement on what needs to be done to get things right, but organisational complexities and lack of leadership at all levels conspire to making the desired result virtually impossible. That is so frustrating.

Just like the little issues you can nitpick on the Airbus, and probably any other complex manufactured goods, I would bet money on the fact that there is a designer somewhere who would say "yes, I know that is an issue and we wanted to fix it, BUT..."

Phil said...

Another option for the controller would be for the buttons to map differently whether it were plugged in or handheld. Most people (e.g., non-geeks) probably wouldn't think about the orientation difference, so they would just use it "natually". The few people who did try to adjust for orientation before trying it would immediately see that it "just worked" and be happy.

Chris Muir said...

Seriously, this is rather a small design fault when compared to the fact they forgot to make it a biplane. My numorous letters to Airbus officials and European politicians went ignored describing this serious design fault.

CM ;)

Paul said...

@chris: omg, and they didn't listen?!!

It seems I am not alone in spending my time in economy searching for and getting all het up about design flaws. Cary Millsap righteously blogs about the AV controls in the 777!