Ride on time
It’s frustrating enough when small things don’t do what they’re supposed to. Ben Elton called said that there must be a Ministry of Crap somewhere responsible for them. He cited motorway service station teapots (the ones with a spout that makes the tea dribble down the front of them – rather than pouring neatly – and with handles too small to get more than one or two fingers inside). I remember mainly that were made of a heat-conducting metal that made picking them up a like plunging your hand into the sun as an example of soemthing created by the Ministry. Also, Izal toilet paper (the greaseproof stuff you used to get at school with all the absorbency of Teflon). Later examples would be CD jewel cases (Does it hold a CD? Barely. Does it open and shut? Not really. Sometimes, maybe. If you’re lucky) and stove-top kettles (Looks homely sat on your Aga but no good unless you’ve got a spare couple of days to wait for it to boil).
More recent – and more serious – additions to the Ministry of Crap’s portfolio are the Black Box recorder and Radar. Maybe it wasn’t news to anyone else but I could barely believe it when I read that an aeroplane is invisible once it leaves the coast of Brazil and only exists once more when it has entered Senegalese airspace. Think about that for a second: that’s a big metal Schrödinger’s cat you’re flying off to Cancun in. More surprising still that the non-existent radar is used as some indication as to where to look for the black box. I thought the black box told you where to look for it itself. Silly me. It appears that the signal it emits for 30 days is detectable from 1000 metres away in calm conditions. I wonder how calm it is 3000 metres underwater?
Before last week it would have seemed akin to blasphemy to suggest that aeroplanes themselves belong to the Ministry of Crap. They seemed miraculous things to me. Huge metal machines that could zoom through the sky. Getting you from one place to the next in the most pleasant way possible. Movies and iced G&Ts and quick journey times. But now I’m not sure. I mean, is there no way to avoid supercells in the 21st century? Is a mass of boiling cloud 5 miles high not a clue? And why do we need the black box at all? If you can make a phone call from the air how come all on-board information isn’t transmitted directly to the nearest satellite and relayed directly to the destination? And if information has to be contained in a box why not make it float? Or make it visible by satellite? Or give it a radiation signature? Anything. Come on.
So the Ministry of Crap takes on a darker meaning for me with the disappearance of flight AF-447 and moves away from comedy and into complete frustration. It’s something that not only needs to be drummed into product designers but also for anybody in business. Whether designing teapots or running an airline – make what you do fit for purpose. Make sure it does what you say it will do. And make sure it doesn’t kill anyone. Or, if that’s also unavoidable, at least make sure you can find out why it did.