Ramping Up

Published 9 years, 5 months past

We were driving back home from our impromptu surprise family vacation in Tennessee, winding our way through the Appalachian Mountains, when I pointed out a long, steep ramp to nowhere branching off the side of the highway.  “What do you think it’s for?” I asked the kids.

Photo by Bidgee (CC BY-SA 3.0 AU)

They made some guesses, some quite clever, but none correct.  So I told them about runaway truck ramps and how they work.  I think they were vaguely interested for a few seconds; I got a well-isn’t-that-interesting grunt, which I’ll take as a win.  We swept on past, the kids went back to whatever they were doing before I’d interrupted them, and I kept my eyes on the road.

But I was still thinking about the runaway truck ramp, and how it’s a perfect physical example of designing for crisis.

I also wondered about the history of runaway ramps — when they were first implemented, and how many runaway vehicles crashed before the need was recognized and a solution found.  After I got home, I looked it up and discovered that ramps didn’t really exist until the 1970s or so.  Even if we assume that no vehicles lost control in the U.S. until the Eisenhower Interstate System was established in the 1950s (just go with it), that’s still two decades of what were probably some pretty horrible crashes, before a solution was implemented.

This is not to say that the ramps are a perfect solution.  A runaway vehicle can certainly crash before reaching the next ramp, and using a ramp is likely to damage the vehicle even under the best of circumstances.  A badly-designed ramp can be almost as dangerous as no ramp at all.  Still, a solution exists.

I feel like web design is at the pre-ramp phase.  We’ve created a huge, sprawling system that amplifies commerce and communication, but we haven’t yet figured out how to build in some worst-case-scenario features that don’t interfere with the main functioning of the system.  We’ve laid down the paths and made some of them look pretty or even breathtaking, but we’re still not dealing with the crashes that happen when an edge case comes onto our stretch of the road.

I’m trying really hard to avoid “information superhighway” clichés here, by the way.

I’ve been pondering whether to incorporate this particular example into my 2015 talk, “Designing for Crisis” — much will depend on how the talk stands after I go back through it one more time to tighten it up, and start rehearsing again.  If there’s room and a good hook, I’ll add it in as a brief illustration.  If not, that’s okay too.  It’s still given me another way to look at designing for crisis, and how that topic fits into the broader theme that the Facebook imbroglio brought to light.

I’m still trying to get a good handle on what the broader theme is, exactly.  “Designing for Crisis” is a part of it, but just a part.  Several people have told me I should turn that talk into a book, but it never quite felt like a book.  Sure, I could have stretched it to fill a book, but something was missing, and I knew it.  I thought there was a hole in the idea that I needed to identify and fill; instead, the idea was filling a hole in a context I hadn’t seen.

Now I have.  It will take some time to see all of it, or even just more of it, but at least now I know it’s there and waiting to be explored and shared.

Comments (9)

  1. Explore and share away, Eric. Excited to see what comes of this, and it’s an area for which I have relatively no knowledge or experience.

    By the way, that photo brings back wonderful memories of many trips throughout the mountains of Northern California and similar signs we passed often.

  2. I love that analogy! Also, in general I’m in awe of road systems and how for the most part we all obey the rules of the road (like stop signs. It seems like it would be an easy thing to think “those aren’t for me.” Yet, everyone stops. And lets the people who got there before them go first.). Time lapse overhead videos of traffic always blows my mind — we can all get along.

    Continued best thoughts to you and your family, Eric.

  3. I wonder if your “designing for crisis” isn’t part of a greater need to design for variation. I’m basically at my wit’s end with auto-correct which I now turn off wherever I can find a switch but now requires me to double-check particularly any name I have typed, any word in any non-English language I have used and any informally coined term. It seems that in a big-beta data-driven design, there’s a real failure to account for even normal variation. 2-5% of any normal distribution is in the tails, depending on where you decide the tails start, and that’s a lot to routinely screw up.

  4. That is such a good visual analogy (and well done for avoiding the cliché). I’m very interested and curious to read more, and to find out where the ‘designing for crisis’ will take your thoughts.

    All the best, as always x

  5. I’ve served in the military (not the US, FWIW), and one of the first things they taught us in basic training was the various safety regulations. Initially, some made sense, others seemed like taking things too far, and a few appeared to be downright absurd.

    Then they told us the stories behind those regulations. I won’t get into any of them, but they all could be (and were, many times) summed up in one sentence:

    Safety regulations are written in blood.

    There were solid, concrete reasons behind each and every seeming absurdity. Once we heard the stories, they all made sense, and were much easier to follow.

    Bringing this back to the web & design stuff… we (individuals and corporations) have taken potential physical injuries into account for many years now, whether it’s RSI issues leading to better designs for mice & keyboards, avoiding bright <blink>ing elements that could trigger seizures, or what have you.

    It’s time we start taking into account mental and emotional damage, which is just as real. However, the web is not the military, and there are no direct personal consequences to not following whatever guidelines and best practices we come up with. So unless we have solid stories to learn from, it will be difficult for many of us to recognize the importance of those directives and adhere to them.

    Eric, your Facebook YiR incident was one such story. Perhaps other stories are what’s missing?

  6. Beautiful analogy. I imagine that in the same way we’ve evolved from an era when “webmaster” was one of the few job roles in our industry, to the era of massive specialization that we have today, we’ll eventually see further specialization and refinement within the “user experience” disciplines.

    But I’ll bet it’s going to be an uphill battle (if you’ll excuse the pun), because it’ll add a ton of work (and expense) to the already (joyously) laborious process of getting a high-quality and thoroughly-considered web product out the door. But as you mentioned in an earlier post, it’s vitally important that we do this work.

  7. Excellent similarity. I envision that in the same way we’ve developed from a time when “website admin” was one of the few occupation parts in our industry, to the period of enormous specialization that we have today, we’ll in the long run see further specialization and refinement inside the “client experience” disciplines.

  8. A reference to runaway-truck ramps demands a link to The West Virginia Joke.

    In our house, when we’re stuck on something, we say we’re in West Virginia, and now you know why.


  9. You’ve just reminded me about Harry Chapin’s worst song. It’s so bad, it might even be good. He certainly always enjoyed inflicting it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZZqnVYB4UA

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