Consequences of inadequate docs/training?

Subject: Consequences of inadequate docs/training?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 27 Mar 2002 09:50:50 -0500

Without knowing the details, I'd speculate that the military GPS units in
question were originally designed for civilian use and modified for use in
sending target positions up to the bomber pilots. That may be an entirely
incorrect assumption, but whether or not it's true, it does have an obvious
implication for some of our work even where the consequences aren't as
dramatic as loss of life.

For example, we frequently discuss how to incorporate modular instructions
into a consistent documentation set when we combine products from several
manufacturers into a single "turnkey product"--or conversely, when we're
providing our own products as modules that others will assemble into a
turnkey product. The GPS example reveals that in such situations, we must
carefully examine the assumptions we make in producing and documenting a
product. If the usage context will change, we must determine whether those
assumptions remain valid in the new context. If not, we have a documentation
or product usability problem.

Martin Page wondered: <<I haven't seen any modern weapons manuals, but they
must be full of warnings - e.g. "Don't call down an air strike within 50m of
your position." "Establish positive identification before firing on target"
and so on. So, how do you avoid overloading the manuals with warnings and
cautions to the extent that you make the reader blasé or destroy their faith
in the equipment?>>

This is only partially a documentation issue; the majority of the problem
relates to an interface problem. Consider the difference in the usage
contexts: a civilian GPS user can easily take time to read the manual, and
can make usage decisions at a relaxed pace, with few consequences other than
the need to clean up the data if they make a mistake. In contrast, a
military user either won't have the documentation easily available, or will
be too rushed and stressed out (perhaps even panicked) to have time to use
it, and the consequences of a wrong decision may be fatal.

Training certainly helps, but the real solution is an interface that
prevents the error in the first place. For example, I lack firsthand
knowledge of the military GPS product, but understand civilian GPS (we study
in-woods navigation of forestry machines using GPS in our research). I
imagine the problem could have been easily avoided if the screen display
showed three very clear indicators: the first would be the user's position,
the second would be the target position, and the third would be an enlarged
cursor that shows the expected blast radius. If the two overlap, the user
will instantly see the problem and can decide what to do about it.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a
personality, and an obnoxious one at that."-Kim Roper

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