Friday, November 20, 2009

Information Design as a Risk Management Tool

Good Information Design (ID) is more than just making the presentation of information attractive. ID is concerned with presenting information in a way that’s useful for the intended audience. Indeed, ID can even aid in risk management. I came across a vivid example of this in Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger’s recently-released book “Highest Duty”. (Captain Sullenberger was the US Airways pilot who safely landed Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009.)

After losing thrust on both engines, Sully instructed First Officer Jeff Skiles to check the Quick Reference Handbook (QRH) for what to do in such a situation. Here’s Sully’s description of those moments (from page 262 of the book):

“Jeff grabbed the Quick Reference Handbook to find the most appropriate procedure for our emergency. The QRH is more than an inch thick, in previous editions, it had helpful numbered tabs sticking out of the edge of it. That made it easier for us to find the exact page we needed. You could hold it in your left hand and use it like an address book, grazing over the numbered tabs with your right hand before turning to the tab for, say Procedure number 27.

“In recent years, however, in a cost-cutting move, US Airways had begun printing these booklets without the numbered tabs on the edge of the pages. Instead, the number of each procedure was printed on the page itself, requiring pilots to open the pages and thumb through them to get to the right page.

“On Flight 1549, as Jeff turned quickly through the pages of his QRH without tabs, it likely took him a few extra seconds to find the page he needed with the proper procedure. I told this to the National Transportation Safety Board in my testimony given in the days after the accident.”

I don’t think you’ll ever find a better example of how Information Design – those little tabs on the pages – can, in fact, be useful from a risk management perspective. The purpose for having the QRH in the cockpit was risk management and those involved in the Information Design decisions that went into the earlier versions clearly understood that a design that included tabs would be useful in saving precious time during an emergency.


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