Yes, clickbait title, but let me explain.

Thanks to Roger for pointing out the Boeing 737Max/MCAS testimony. Yes, the MCAS worked perfectly fine by itself–it did not fail. The 737 Max system as a whole failed, and 346 people died. The lack of ‘systems thinking’ in the design culture, as spread through the larger product development culture, has real consequences.

Having been in the ‘make things easier’ practice for over 20 years, let me add perspective. Early on there was Human Factors Engineering, in which the system was the thing. Especially in domains where the products have the potential to kill people, like airplanes (HF began in WWI aviation), nuclear power plants, medical systems, and military systems—in fact the Dept of Defense MANPRINT (Manpower and Personnel Integration) ensured that development of military systems included human factors, personnel training and selection, even maintenance and integration with other systems.

As human factors engineering declined (or just didn’t grow, evidenced by any job search) and usability/information architecture/interaction design/user experience exploded, the focus shifted to surface (graphic design, UI) and workflow (interaction design) but systems thinking was left behind. We tend to create new fields (e.g. service design, UX strategy, design thinking, customer experience) rather than focus on the system. We love to argue about job titles, whether designers should code, or what is the best drawing tool. There is also a tendency to denigrate traditional human factors/psychology designers, who can’t code, draw, do search engine optimization, or make things look pretty.

The opportunity cost of an industry focusing on product design (as in UX Design) instead of system design (e.g. Human Factors) can lead to catastrophic failures.

So you say, what if my app doesn’t involve falling from the sky or undermining democracy?

When you lack a system focus, you are doomed to face the law of unintended consequences. Airbnb hollows out downtowns and in turn school districts as rental speculators push out families and others who wanted to live there. Uber puts more cars, traffic, and pollution on the roads as underemployed people compete with each other for spare change. Amazon/Favor/UberEats/etc as well increase traffic with lots of one-off deliveries (and create buttloads of excess cardboard). Facebook enables foreign powers to …. you get the picture.

I don’t know if Boeing’ MCAS had human factors or UX design work. NTSB indicates likely not. My guess is if there was no explicit human-computer interaction, graphical user interface, website or app; design wasn’t asked. Which is unfortunate that the domain that started human factors engineering should be the one to have it nailed.

UX Design is Killing People

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