Moving on Up: Part 7 – When an engineer’s solution goes wrong

    Last week, I received a reminder of what it feels like to be a customer. A customer that is reliant on technical experts; and I was left confused and disappointed by experts that made decisions solely based on efficiency, without taking my human needs into account.

    I was reminded in living color that when engineers design a solution in a vacuum, devoid of external input or feedback, the end-user’s experience can be lacking. Clearly, it’s easy for problem solvers to forget that the user’s experience with the solution is just as important as the solving the problem itself. Engineers often set out to evaluate a problem and find the most efficient way to solve it, plain and simple. This isn’t wrong by any means, but the direct approach often leads to a less-than-ideal user experience for anyone that isn’t an expert, which limits the solution’s ability to be effective.

    Solutions to problems that do not consider the surrounding environment or related needs can lead to experiences like mine, or even worse – a national tragedy.

    Worst Case Scenario: The Apollo 1 disaster

    Initially designated AS-204, Apollo 1 was the first manned mission of the United States Apollo program. A cabin fire during a test killed all three crew members – Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chafee, along with destroying the command module. An electrical fire spread rapidly due to materials use, a pure oxygen cabin atmosphere, and an inability to rapidly evacuate the command module in the event of an emergency.

    The pure oxygen atmosphere fed the fire, while the internal cabin pressure prevented the hatch from opening without outside help, which took about five minutes. These factors, combined with the highly flammable materials used within the cabin transformed it from the first steps towards manned lunar landing to an untimely death for three American heroes.

    Apollo 1 Crew

    Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger B. Chafee. Credit: NASA

    Mild Case Scenario: The Valiant Lounge

    Thankfully, we don’t have to plan any Astronaut funerals, nor explain to the President (Georg, that is) that we burned up a couple million dollars of precious material in the race for space. Our issue was far more minor (although I do believe rooted in the same “target fixation” as other engineering disasters). Now, as planet-loving-yet-energy-hungry-green-blooded New Yorkers, we selected a brand new, 12 ton, energy-efficient AC unit that lives in the back corner of our new office – this new style of unit grabs the majority of it’s air by recirculating the 70-something-degree air from inside our space, and not 90+ degree air from outside of the building. This recirculated air is provided to the AC unit via return vents, which must be placed in specific areas of the office for the unit to function optimally, and the engineers chose the New Valiant Lounge as their access point, without a proper understanding of how the space is to be used.

    The Valiant Lounge is an important part of our company’s culture. It’s a space that we use for meetings, networking events, and simply to catch up at the end of the day. This giant-friggin hole in the wall (directly exposing the large, loud AC Unit) would ruin the room. The constant BRRRRRRRR of the unit, and the WHOOSSHH of air would prevent us from using the room as we intend, and that cannot be.

    A solution that does not work is not a solution.

    The recent usability issue around Apple’s butterfly switch keyboards is a great example of when design comes before function. I think that we can all agree that Apple produces some of the sleekest looking notebooks on the market, but should design matter this much if functionality takes a hit as a result? If a keyboard cannot work reliably as a result of predictable, normal, usage – it has a design flaw. It’s a real problem and has led to a class-action lawsuit. It’s not always about thin and light; sometimes, the computer has to actually work, too.

    Any solution that we design for a client has to work, and it needs to complement their existing workflows and business needs. If you leave a project solely to the realm of engineering, you’ll end up with a solution that works, but isn’t necessarily usable. If you leave the project to areas as outside of engineering, you’re likely to have a solution that isn’t as reliable. A delicate balance exists between the two, and they must work together to truly achieve a reliable, and usable solution. Our team at Valiant is a mixture of tech professionals, engineers and creatives, and we’ve found that our most effective and usable solutions are a result of both sites working together for the customer’s benefit.

    Keeping it simple

    Unnecessary complexity often introduces opportunities for problems to occur, so we set out to find a simple solution, mirroring our system design philosophy.

    So what was the simplest, most non-intrusive way to achieve our goal of supplying the AC unit with air?

    We changed the path! We’re now replacing the doors to our lab, storage room and HVAC closet with louvered doors. The louvers allow air to flow to the AC unit’s returns, achieving optimal performance without an over-engineered solution. It looks like Summer 2018 is getting off to a cool start, and the giant hole in the wall is already patched up. Lounge saved, “crisis” averted.

    Valiant Technology is the award-winning managed service provider to innovative industries in New York.

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