As a designer, I create new interfaces for bikes and scooters. I have a long running debate with two friends who work in city transport planning. Which has more impact on the cycling experience: bikes or bike lanes?
Can a cleverly integrated display or haptic navigation effect ever trump improved street signage or increased junction radii? A good experience is the sum of both the products we use and the environment they exist in. Yet when designing small vehicles like these, I agree with my friends that most of the design effort would be better applied to improving the street environment than iterating on the product details. Perhaps bike manufacturers seeking to increase the number of cyclists would have a bigger impact by simply seconding their design staff out to support city councils?
Coming from a product manufacturing mindset, this felt uncomfortable at first. In re-thinking the boundaries of what it means to design a good product I considered abandoning my career entirely and finding a job in local government. For now, though, I’m comfortable doing what I can from the other side, bridging the conversation and encouraging clients to explore approaches to changing user behavior beyond just adding new technology to a bike.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~23% of opens) was the US DOD's guide to detecting "Agile BS".
In the Members' Slack, a bunch of us are fans of Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future and were excited to see airships making the jump from science fiction. Fingers crossed for a The Prepared meetup in the skies in 2032. In the meantime, there is a meetup scheduled in Seattle on 2022-07-06 hosted by Cindy.
Planning & Strategy.
- Far outside the city center, London is encircled by a single giant motorway: the M25. During the 1960s, serious attempts were made to build many more concentric ring roads right into the heart of the city. Road building is often seen as the antithesis of sustainable urban transport planning, but the advocates of these schemes were in some ways the environmentalists of their time. Complemented by inventions such as resident-only parking zones and London’s first bus lanes, these giant ringways were designed to discourage car use, banishing cars from view and restoring ‘civilized life’ to the city. Thankfully, the M25 was all that emerged from the original scheme. Yet the ambition to banish the cars was ultimately achieved: London today has a superb public transport network and driving into the city center is a rare event for most residents. As we embark on programs to rebuild our cities and tackle climate change we might learn the lesson that it is often patient, incremental improvements to public services, not flashy, blank-sheet visions, that succeed.
- During the 1950s, Project Plowshare was the US Atomic Energy Commission’s exploration into using the energy released from atomic explosions for large-scale excavation. They blew test craters in southern Nevada and planned an alternative to the Panama Canal through Nicaragua (nicknamed the Pan-Atomic Canal). I’m particularly fascinated by the story of Project Chariot, which sought to use nuclear bombs to create an artificial harbour in Alaska. This project was one of the first government initiatives to be challenged on environmental grounds, and it was ultimately halted by a coalition of conservationists and local Inupiat.
- Cost-benefit analysis for transportation schemes requires a calculation of the Value of a Statistical Life. For example, Transport for London values your life at £3,229,114 (~$4 M). A related concept is the micromort, a unit defined as a one-in-a-million chance of a lethal outcome in a given situation. Combining these two measures can lead to some interesting analysis, such as the fact that each £1 raised by charity skydiving in the UK costs the National Health Service £13.75.
- During WWII, the US Air Force suffered from a series of catastrophic accidents where pilots would raise the landing gear whilst the planes were just about to land. An aviation psychologist, Alphonse Chapanis, identified that confusion between adjacent landing gear and flap controls was to blame. He invented shape coding, switch differentiation through form, to prevent the crashes. The concept was so successful that Federal Aviation Regulations still use the same principles today. Alphonse’s 1953 article Psychology and the Instrument Panel remains an excellent introduction to interface panel design and the design principles for knobs, scales, and display indications.
- Fighter jet cockpits have evolved from analog switches to digital screens over the past thirty years. “All-glass” cockpits like the F-35 provide incredible situational awareness but lose tactile feedback. Alternative input modes like voice work well on the ground but the systems struggle to interpret commands during the G-forces of flying. One RAF pilot describes pressing the wrong part of the screen about 20% of the time, which sounds like a terrifyingly high error rate with potentially fatal consequences. In 2017 the US Navy decided to revert their throttle and helm controls back to physical buttons after the USS John McCain collided with another vessel. For a while I’ve been anticipating a similar response to the proliferation of touchscreens within cars, driven either by consumer backlash or legislation. For example, a German court ruled that using touchscreen controls whilst driving was as distracting as a mobile phone.
- Traditionally, haptic feedback in consumer products is delivered through linear resonant actuators, which use a magnetic coil to push a magnet against a spring. To deliver more complex sensations, manufacturers have started to explore more elaborate arrangements such as the PS5’s adaptive triggers or the variable clutch in Logitech’s mice, which use a mechanical detent ball or an electro-permanent magnet. More recently, a number of open source efforts have used brushless DC motors to provide the sensation of resistance and detent stops in a rotating dial by driving a motor against the direction of rotation.
- This truly abysmal support video for performing a factory reset on GE’s smart light bulbs shows the perils of designing a product with no interface at all.
Making & Manufacturing.
- Xbox controllers use tiny dot patterns to break the surface tension on gamers’ hands, reducing sweat and the sensation of clammy hands. Sony’s PS5 gamepad takes this a step further, molding 40,000 tiny PlayStation symbols into the surface texture itself. It reminds me of how each dot of ink on an HP LaserJet anti-counterfeit seal is actually a tiny HP logo with a 1.5 μm stroke width.
- The Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) opened in May, bringing a 10% increase to central London’s rail capacity. It’s a major piece of public transport infrastructure and I’ve been looking forward to it for years. Last week I explored the network for the first time and was amazed how much the smooth tunnel curvature, increased ceiling heights, and wide platforms contribute to a more pleasant and calming atmosphere. One output of the project is this treasure trove of interesting and accessible technical information. Two picks to get you started: an analysis of door opening forces in public passageways and the standardized design of curved, concrete panels to reduce blind spots in tunnel corners.
- I build a lot of prototype electronics. Cutting, crimping, and heat shrinking wire harnesses is definitely the most boring part of every project. I was surprised to learn that it's one of the few parts of automotive production that is still highly dependent on manual assembly.
- The Unfortunate Tetrahedron is a superb guide to the four design trade-offs in battery design: energy density, power density, operating cost, and capital cost. An alternative taxonomy is to classify batteries based on the state of matter of their electrodes and electrolytes. I’m an engineer, not a chemist, but I finally feel like I’m beginning to understand a little of the complexity involved.
- The FAA requires airports to have runway safety areas (RSAs) to accommodate overruns. A standard RSA extends 300 m beyond the end of the runway, but where space constraints prevent this an EMAS (Engineered Materials Arresting System) is used. A bed of lightweight, crushable concrete blocks absorb energy from the aircraft tires, which sink into the material upon contact. Since 1996 they have been installed at 69 airports across the USA, safely stopping 18 runway overshoots. However, their success has created an interesting side effect, EMAS-phobia, where pilots in low speed overruns deliberately steer away to the grass at the sides of the runway to avoid the resulting publicity that comes with an EMAS arrest.
- IKEA was once responsible for 1% of global wood consumption (see page 23).
- Alan Benson’s superb Twitter thread summarizes his experience traveling through London’s underground rail network in a wheelchair. It’s a goldmine of accessibility advice, discussing the small details that make travel with a disability challenging, such as inconsistent signage numbering, lift door timings that are too quick, and poor visual contrast between adjacent pavement sections with different heights.
- I’m noticing more and more banks introducing accessible design features into their credit and debit cards, such as raised dots and differentiation notches. Inclusive design is built on the “solve for one, extend to many” principle. I’m fortunate to have good eyesight, but still use the side notch every day as I thumb through my wallet. Microsoft’s Inclusive Design toolkit provides a great introduction to this approach, and this year I’ve been trying hard to learn more about designing for invisible disabilities such as mental health, learning difficulties, or pain related conditions.
- Tim Hunkin’s superb Secret Life of Components YouTube series has been featured here before, and he also operates a tiny museum in central London where you can play with many of his arcade machines. I highly recommend a visit; the mix of whimsy and engineering is perfect.
- A bug in an image compression algorithm caused Xerox copiers to randomly alter numbers on scanned documents for eight years. The algorithm (JBIG2) proved so dangerous that the German Federal Office for Safety in Information Technology eventually banned it from use in archive work.
- Not all LEGO brick combinations are legal, as this presentation from LEGO designer Jamie Berard outlines. I particularly enjoy the comment on page 11: “Some LEGO projects require an engineer to determine whether an angle is legal.”
- NASA maintains an audio library for use as ringtones, in case you’d like to hear your notifications in the form of lighting on Jupiter, or the rhythmic pings of Sputnik.
p.s. - To read where the bikes vs. bike lanes debate led, here’s my interview with those two friends about their work in transport planning.
p.p.s. - We care about inclusivity. Here’s what we’re doing about it.