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The Importance of Clear Data Displays

By Steve Jones,

When the USS McCain crashed into a merchant ship in the Singapore Straight, I was sure that some sort of mechanical failure or negligence would be involved. An investigation was launched, as 10 sailors were killed, and there was speculation about a cyberattack. After all, this was a modern, highly capable ship being navigated by experienced crews. What could have gone wrong?

Apparently this was an error in how the navigation and steering controls were configured. You can read about this over at Ars Technica, but essentially one crewman was having difficulties steering and managing the speed. The officer in charge ordered speed control transferred to another computer, but both speed and steering were transferred. This caused confusion as everyone thought one person was steering, which wasn't working, and another person was responsible for speed. In the time during which the crew scrambled to determine why they couldn't steered, the ship crossed into the path of the merchant ship and a collision occurred.

I don't know what the UI looks like for a warship, but I've always thought that as we moved to move digital controls and a great amount of information was a dangerous one. In the heat of the moment, I think it's easier to make a mistake on a digital screen than an analog one. Depending on the user, it might even be less obvious how items on the screen are configured. Many of us look at a visual display, and over time we pay less attention to parts of the screen. We might not even think to look at something like a steering control if we expect it to be configured a certain way. This is definitely possible with a hardware switch as well, but a hardware switch often can be sensed tactilely as well as visually, and more important, to check this we have to move our eyes away from a screen and re-evaluate the situation.

Perhaps a more important consideration for me is that hardware switches don't move. For someone training to work with controls over time, knowing where hardware switches and checking their settings can increase proficiency. This doesn't necessarily mean that humans won't make mistakes, as they do in cars, but it's also less likely that there will be confusion, which can occur when user interfaces change, or aren't clear.

No matter what happened here, and what might be a better system, I think it should be clear that somehow the UI on these warships hasn't been designed well enough to make it clear who has control of what system. If there is switching that can take place, and in all likelihood will take place, then a user should be aware of those items that are active on their station. Even more critical, others that check should easily be aware of who is controlling what operation.

This was a sad event, with sailors killed over a mistake, and I hope that we move forward with changes that help prevent this type of issue in the future. For those of us that work with data, however, we should take this as a lesson to ensure that our end users understand the UI for our systems. After all, they are the ones that will be interacting with the data.

 
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