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Bad UI/UX can kill

When the USS John S. McCain collided with the container ship Alnic MC, 10 sailors lost their lives. With the initial reports of confusion and loss of navigational control on the bridge, some speculated this was the work of sophisticated hackers. 

However, the conclusions of a recently released report on the incident point to a less sinister, but nonetheless tragic cause: confusion over the UI of the ship's controls. Specifically, the bridge crew did not realise in time that all, instead of part of the controls were transferred from one station to another which led to a cascade of confusion and poor decisions.

Of course, there were many factors which contributed to the incident such as inadequate training, insufficient supervision, and rules and protocols not followed by the crews of both ships, and ultimately, proper training and supervision can be seen as the fix, but one has to wonder how much of a difference subtle improvements to the UI could have made. Would simpler warning messages have helped an under-trained crew member to understand and communicate that there was a problem? Were the controls too easy to switch or lacking confirmation steps? Were the alarms not bright enough or the text not big enough? Because all it took was 3 minutes of confusion to go from a potential accident to unavoidable tragedy. 

Not to mention this was the fourth collision between a US Navy ship and a merchant vessel this year, contributing to the most collisions in a year since the 1950s as well as the US Navy's deadliest year at sea since 1989. It goes to show that UI/UX design can be more difficult than it seems; even the most technologically advanced navy in the world isn't immune to poor design decisions. 

It's also a sobering reminder that for our UI/UX decisions, not only are human lives affected, in some cases, human lives are at stake.

However, instead of switching just throttle control to the Lee Helm station, the Helmsman accidentally switched all control to the Lee Helm station. When that happened, the ship's rudder automatically moved to its default position (amidships, or on center line of the ship). The helmsman had been steering slightly to the right to keep the ship on course in the currents of the Singapore Strait, but the adjustment meant the ship started drifting off course.

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