Interfaces designed by engineers

One of the things that bothers me most about our increasing reliance on technology is how absolutely terrible some of it is. Where simple tasks exist, complex methods are often required. Other times, included features are utterly useless, while useful things are nowhere to be seen.

Take cell phones, for example. I’ve got a cameraphone, a Sony Ericsson W600i. It’s reasonably attractive and takes nice enough photos (considering that it’s a telephone). Once I’ve taken those photos, however, actually viewing them is another matter. First I bring up the menu, then press left and down to get to the “My Stuff” selection. This lists logical enough things – “pictures”, “videos”, etc – yet selecting “pictures” defaults to an item called “Shop Graphics”, which tries to launch a data connection so you can buy shitty wallpaper. All I want to do is browse the photos – why is the process so hard?

This modern airliner cockpit is how a PFD should display altitude information - click for a better view.A similar thing is happening in the aviation world. Avidyne’s latest update to the primary flight display adds a vertical speed “bug”, something which I (and my instructor) view as utterly useless in an aircraft with no autopilot. Bugs allow the pilot to set in a target, whether it’s a heading, airspeed, altitude, whatever. Vertical speed is a secondary product of your airspeed and pitch angle, and the indicator really only provides supplementary information. Far more practical would be a ‘descent limit’ bug of some kind, or at least a second altitude bug, so that pilots could dial in their target altitude when they’re briefing for the approach. Instead, you’re cruising along at (for example) 2600 feet, waiting to intercept the glideslope; once you do, to set the altitude for the decision height requires you to press the altitude softkey, press the right knob two times, and then dial it down to the exact altitude.

This, of course, is all being accomplished while flying the aircraft, possibly trying to track the glideslope and localizer, completing checklists, and verifying that the decision height is the correct one. Airliner and business jet cockpits have the ability to set a decision height as well as select an altitude; general aviation glass is basically trying to mimic the heavy metal, but the functionality has a long way to go. Simply adding more information but not managing how it is displayed or controlled doesn’t help pilots, it hinders them. Avidyne’s latest ‘feature’ for the Warrior hasn’t improved situational awareness or safety at all, while features which could remain conspicuously absent. And don’t even get me started on the Entegra’s “inclinometer” component.

Some of the only equipment I’ve ever used that makes sense without documentation and “just works” is made by Apple. Now, when will they start designing cockpit interfaces?

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