In observance of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, I’m reading Mike Collins’s memoir, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. I’m loving it. Collins is an engaging writer, and the book is packed with lots of details about the Apollo program and the process of becoming a NASA astronaut in the early 1960s.

When discussing the challenges inherent in the design of Apollo’s cockpits and controls, Collins calls out one I’ve faced when designing complex systems UIs: In Apollo, “more information is available that can possibly be presented to the pilot at any one time, so each subsystem must be analyzed to determine what its essential measurements are.” The point is to give users the information they need to make decisions quickly without overloading them in an already stressful environment.

This challenge applies to many design problems here on Earth. When working on information-heavy, highly specialized systems (neurosurgery, energy management, etc.), nailing these critical choices and getting the density right calls for subject domain knowledge — and ideally, subject domain experience. Co-creation is useful for this. (In any case, research, research, research!)

The discussion includes this gem about the importance of getting the sequence of interactions right:

A classic case of poor cockpit design is the ejection procedure which used to be in one Air Force trainer. It was a placard listing half a dozen important steps, printed boldly on the canopy rail where the pilot couldn’t miss seeing it. The only flaw was that step 1 was “jettison the canopy.”

Don’t do that.


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