This week America was shocked, shocked to learn that air traffic controllers have been falling asleep at their terminals. Obviously, this is all the fault of the lazy, irresponsible air traffic controllers who are falling asleep on the job instead of staying awake and doing their job like the rest of us.
Or is it really that simple?
As a frequent flier myself, obviously I want my air traffic controllers to be well-rested, awake, and alert. But when they fall asleep on the job, are the individual air traffic controllers solely to blame? Of course not. It has now come to light that management has been scheduling the air traffic controllers in ways that are known to cause fatigue. So the story isn’t “Lazy, irresponsible air traffic controllers are falling asleep on the job.” It’s more like “Management is making humans work on schedules that scientific studies have shown cause fatigue. Humans are falling asleep as predicted by scientific studies.” Why are we even surprised? Air traffic controllers are human beings like the rest of us. Although they’re carefully selected and trained, they’re still subject to sleep-wake cycles, circadian rhythms, and fatigue like all other mortals.
In response to the public outcry, the Federal Aviation Administration is now taking steps to stop the use of work schedules that have been shown to cause fatigue. Why did they wait until highly-publicized incidents of controllers falling asleep to do this? Since they already had the studies in hand proving that certain work schedules cause fatigue, they could have proactively taken steps to eliminate those schedules instead of waiting and being reactive after a scandal.
There are two basic schools of management:
- dysfunctional school of management: Assume that humans can perform perfectly and consistently like machines. Design systems that require humans to perform perfectly and punish the humans when they fail.
- functional school of management: Learn what scientific studies have shown about human performance. Design systems that account and compensate for the known characteristics of human workers to the extent possible.
The dysfunctional school is guaranteed to fail. Worse, it creates incentives for the humans to hide their failings, preventing management from becoming aware of the problems in the first place and potentially leading to disastrous failures like plane crashes.
The fundamental problem was that management was requiring people to perform perfectly like machines (and expecting that they could and would) instead of accepting that humans are human and planning to account for human weakness and error. There are so many alternative approaches that could be used in this situation. For example:
- prevention: Avoid scheduling shifts in ways that increase fatigue and the risk of falling asleep.
- redundancy: Avoid scheduling controllers to work alone in the tower, so a second controller can notice and intervene or take over if the first falls asleep.
- monitoring and detection: Have the controllers wear devices that detect when they’re nodding off, or have their workstations detect that the human has fallen asleep. (Luxury cars now do this. Can’t we afford to do the same on air traffic control workstations?)
- intervention: Give pilots a way to use their existing equipment (such as setting their transponder to a particular frequency) to signal and cause a monitoring device in the air traffic control tower to sound an alarm that will wake up sleeping controllers.
- opt out: Permit controllers to “call in tired” a certain number of times per year without penalty. Staff with on-call backup coverage to make this possible.
Product managers can learn from this mistake. Don’t assume that your users will perform perfectly. Assume that they will get tired, busy, distracted, hurried, and interrupted. Assume that they will fail to read or understand messages, click the wrong button by mistake, and make every possible error under the sun. Then design your products accordingly. Give them a clearly-worded confirmation alert when they do a destructive data operation. Then, assume they will ignore or it click the wrong button and give your users ways to recover from mistakes. Save backup copies of their files so they can revert their changes. Move deleted files into a trash folder where they can recover them for a while if they delete something by mistake. And so on and so forth. Design for mortals and your users will love you. Design for gods and your users will hate you.
Product managers: your users are human beings, not machines. Design your products accordingly!