Archive for April 13, 2020

Checking our hubris with checklists: Learning a lesson from the XO Laptop

My Blog@CACM blog post for February was on Morgan Ames’ book The Charisma Machine (see post here). The book is well-written, and I do recommend it. In the post, I say that the OLPC opposition to HCI design practices is one of the themes in her book that I found most interesting:

It takes humility to design software that humans will use successfully. The human-computer interaction (HCI) community has developed a rich set of methods for figuring out what users need and might use, and for evaluating the potential of a new interface. To use these methods requires us to recognize our limitations — that we are unlikely to get the design right the first time and that our users know things that we don’t.

How do we get developers to have that humility? There are a lot of rewards for hubris. Making big promises that you probably can’t keep is one way to get grant and VC funding.

I just finished Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto (which I already blogged about here, before I even read it). It’s a short book which I highly recommend. I hadn’t realized before how much Gawande’s story overlaps with the OLPC story — or rather, how much it doesn’t but should have. Gawande is a surgeon. His entry into the idea of checklists is because of the success of checklists in reducing costs and improving patient success rates in medicine. There, too, they had to deal with physician hubris. They saw the checklists as busywork. As one physician said in opposition to checklists, “Forget the paperwork. Take care of the patient.”

The OLPC project couldn’t be bothered with user studies or pilot studies. They wanted to airdrop tablets into Ethiopia. They were so confident that they were going to (in Negroponte’s words) “eliminate poverty, create peace, and work on the environment.” They couldn’t be bothered with the details. They were taking care of the patient!

Gawande points out that checklists aren’t needed because physicians are dumb, but because they know SO much. We’re humans and not Econs. Our attention gets drawn this way or that. We forget about or skip a detail. Our knowledge and systems are so complex. Checklists help us to manage all the details.

We need checklists to check our hubris. We have confidence that we can build technology that changes users lives. The reality is that the odds are slim that we can have impact without going through an HCI design process, e.g., know the user, test often, and iterate. The OLPC Project could have used an HCI checklist.

The second to last chapter in Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto captures the idea well that we need checklists:

We are all plagued by failures—by missed subtleties, overlooked knowledge, and outright errors. For the most part, we have imagined that little can be done beyond working harder and harder to catch the problems and clean up after them. We are not in the habit of thinking the way the army pilots did as they looked upon their shiny new Model 299 bomber—a machine so complex no one was sure human beings could fly it. They too could have decided just to “try harder” or to dismiss a crash as the failings of a “weak” pilot. Instead they chose to accept their fallibilities. They recognized the simplicity and power of using a checklist. And so can we. Indeed, against the complexity of the world, we must. There is no other choice. When we look closely, we recognize the same balls being dropped over and over, even by those of great ability and determination. We know the patterns. We see the costs. It’s time to try something else. Try a checklist.

April 13, 2020 at 7:00 am 14 comments


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