During world war 2, famous Boeing B-17 bomber was involved in a series of runway accidents. Pilots were retracting landing gears after the landing, while the plane was on the ground, causing the propeller to hit the ground and destroy the engine. They even named a term after it – “Belly Landing”.
After destroying dozens of planes, US Army Corps decided to investigate the cause. An obvious one was to call it a human error. They made pilots go through numerous simulations and practice them to follow the checklist. But nothing worked.
One day they decided to hire a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Yale, named Alphonse Chapanis, to look into the situation. As it turns out, B-17 Bomber was the first plane to have hydraulics for both flaps and landing gear. Before landing, pilots have to lower the flaps and then lower the landing gears. After they land, they have to raise the flaps to slow down the plane. But pilots were retracting the landing gear, destroying the plane. Instead of blaming pilots, Chapanis used a different approach to solve this issue. He observed that controls of both flaps and landing gears were identical and very near to each other. Under the pressure, pilots were pulling the wrong lever.
Chapanis came up with a simple yet brilliant solution to change the shape of the levers, that resemble with the equipment they were linked to. A small rubber wheel attached to the landing gear switch and small flap on the flap controls. Now it was easier for the pilots to make the call under pressure. Suddenly, accidents disappeared overnight.
The same thing can be seen in our daily life too. More often, it’s people who get blamed for the problem, instead of the problem itself. A common way to handle this sort of situation is – identify the person who made the mistake, discipline or get rid of that person, problem solved.
We live in a complex world. Design alone is not a solution to all the problems. But to every problem, there is a simple solution. A good design is not a decoration. A good design is problem-solving.