Avoiding The Engineer-Saviour Trap

The random seaside holidays of Hackaday staffers rarely sow the seeds of our articles, but my most recent trip had something slightly unusual about it. I was spending a couple of days in a resort town on the Isle of Wight, just off the coast of Southern England, and my hotel was the local outpost of a huge chain that provides anonymous rooms for travelling salesmen and the like. I could probably find an identical place to lay my head anywhere in the world from Anchorage to Hobart and everywhere in between.

My room though was slightly different to the norm. By chance rather than necessity I’d been assigned one of the hotel’s accessible rooms, designed with people with disabilities in mind. And once I’d reached the limit of the free amusement that the digital TV channels of Southern England could provide, my attention turned to the room itself, eyeing up its slightly unfamiliar design features as an engineer.

Walking Into The Trap…

My room had a little less sunshine than this one. A Chilling Soul (CC BY-NC 2.0).
My room had a little less sunshine than this one. A Chilling Soul (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The most obvious difference was the distance of many of the fittings from the floor. Most features of the room were placed at a height suitable for a wheelchair user, but there were some baffling omissions such as the light switch on entering the room which was at the normal height you’d expect in other rooms.

The TV remote meanwhile seemed to have been designed for someone with the eyesight of an eagle and the dexterity of a concert pianist rather than someone partially sighted or with restricted hand movement, and operating the window required even an able-bodied person to be both weight-lifter and contortionist.

The bathroom was the wet floor type, with a walk in shower, no tray to confound users with limited mobility. Its floor though seemed to have been laid by someone with very little concept of levels, for taking a shower sent water flowing all over it and mostly away from the plughole down which it was meant to drain. Most baffling of all, the room was devoid of any form of bedside unit, ledge, or table. Did its designers think people with disabilities were not worthy of somewhere to put their book, their phone, or their cup of tea? And saving the best for last, I was on the 2nd floor, which I believe in American parlance is the 3rd floor. Isn’t it unreasonable to expect a person with restricted mobility to use superfluous corridors and lifts when the building has a much more accessible ground floor?

It was evident that the designers had put a lot of thought into the features of the room, and though for obvious reasons without the experience of a person with a disability I am unable to comment on its effectiveness from a position of knowledge I’m sure that its target audience will find it more acceptable to them than a conventional one. But I couldn’t help lying there thinking about the shortcomings I could see, and how I as an engineer might fix them.

And in that moment, I almost fell into a trap. I was setting myself up to be the Engineer-Saviour, riding in on my white charger to deliver the users of the room from the ceaseless hell into which its designers had put them. The overwhelming smugness of Helping Someone Less Fortunate Than Myself was reaching out to envelop me, and it was time to put the thought down and back away real slow.

What Did I Nearly Do There?

The Africar, a British designed amd made car for Africa that became more famous for the questionable way its company was run than for providing transport for Africans. Thomas's Pics (CC BY 2.0).
The Africar, a British designed and made car for Africa that became more famous for the questionable way its company was run than for providing transport for Africans. Thomas’s Pics (CC BY 2.0).

You see, the world is littered with examples of well-meaning people swooping in with miracle solutions to other people’s problems that come from their own perceptions rather than those of the people they are trying to help. The African villagers drinking polluted water while a borehole provided by a saviour-NGO sits idle for want of a part only available on another continent, for example. The developing country motor vehicles conceived as publicity objects for huge corporations and as objects to attract investment to questionable companies. Or the people with Big Ideas for Solutions To World Problems that you will encounter from time to time if you are involved in the running of a hackspace.

It’s all extremely laudable and it gives those who do it ample excuse to pat each other on the back, but if its chief benefit is to the would-be saviour rather than to those who it would claim to help, then it cannot be considered appropriate. It is easy to believe that you are doing good works when your only feedback comes from your peers, but the only judges that matter in these cases are the people you would seek to help, and an important pre-requisite should be that they do in fact need the help in the first place.

This is not to say that there is no place for engineering solutions, of course there is. But the impetus for any such work should come from within the group for which it is intended rather than outsiders, and its execution should be appropriate for the environment in which it is to be placed. An accessibility solution should come as a result of a real need expressed by those facing the problem it is trying to solve. The solution should be refined only by their feedback for example, or an aid solution in a developing country should work with local suppliers, craftsmen, and engineers to ensure that it can continue to serve in the conditions on the ground rather than those thousands of miles away. If it doesn’t meet these criteria then it’s worth asking: is it a solution to the problem at hand or a solution to the need for the person behind it to feel a warm feeling about their Good Works?

This has been something of a personal rant using my seaside hotel room as a handle, but from the number of times I have encountered projects or would-be projects that stray into this territory I’d say it’s one that has a pertinence for our community. If you’re up for helping others with your work then please do so, but ask yourself the question before you commence: who are you really helping? Them, or yourself?

93 thoughts on “Avoiding The Engineer-Saviour Trap

  1. The brand new Travellodge just built at redbridge Oxford has disabled rooms on the top floor DUH!

    The designers apparently put them out of the way without thinking about the fact according to fire regulations lifts (elevators) are not to be used in the event of a fire. How the hell do they expect a wheel chair to get down 2 flights of stairs, complete idiots if you ask me.

        1. Where did I mention firearms? Could you point that out for me? The point I was trying to make is that England is statist and doesn’t concern itself with the individual. The entire country is set up against the individual as we saw with Charlie Gard….

          1. The entire history of genetics was against Charlie Gard. The entire history of life led up to that point, and at that point, his DNA had an error which caused him terminal illness he was sure to die from in no time.

          2. Please.
            The arrogance of a person fully in the know that they have a fatal disease that is more than likely going to be passed to their off spring, to go ahead and have a child anyway, then fight tooth and nail aginst the experts in medical fields, having previously ignored medical advice.
            Whilst there are many hundreds of children waiitng to be adopted by parents they chose a route they were told would likely fail to produce a healthy child.
            They’ve wasted their time, the life of a child, the NHS’s money and they’ve run their own little genetic’s experiment because they felt they knew better. It’s stinks of the self entitlement snowflake generation which plauges England and the rest of the UK.
            Now the media will give them a ton of money to sell their story and them will become mini celebrities and rewarded for a complete lack of any moral compass.

          3. Dave said:
            >The arrogance of a person fully in the know
            >that they have a fatal disease that is more
            >than likely going to be passed to their off spring,

            Did the parents know, though? How can you say that?

      1. And there is the problem with the assumption that a wheelchair user can transfer from their chair to something else. Some chair users have such limited mobility that they have to use special equipment such as a hoist or require the help of 2 or more people to move out of their chair.

        In a typical motel staffed by a single receptionist not trained in how to lift people in all likelihood the disabled person would have to wait to be rescued by the fire service. As there are rooms on the ground floor, they may as well be the disabled ones. If not only for fire but to allow for situations such as failure of the elevators.

        1. any with 3 stories or less are not required to have a lift. Same as in Australia. I’m sure the US has similar conditions. Public buildings do tend to have lifts…but we aren’t talking about a public building.

  2. I’d say that far too many (certainly software) engineers are guilty of this on a daily basis. I’ve seen many carefully designed (or thrown together…) UIs – graphical, commandline and function-based, where what the user actually wants to achieve has not been considered in the slightest. Far too rarely does the engineer ask “what do you want to _do_” and provide steps to do this, rather than provide functions to do ‘everything’ and leave the user to muddle their way through a minefield of converting this-structure to that-structure in their code before calling function A, then calling function B to convert that-structure back to this-structure … (or the cl/gui equivalents).

      1. Use Linux for 10 minutes with any GUI and you’ll run into something needlessly cryptic. If it doesn’t have the network time service (NTP) installed, the error message you get when trying to change the time to be set via online does *not* give the user the clear and precise instructions on running a terminal and entering sudo apt-get install ntp – or simply doing that itself so all the user has to do is enter the password.

        Then there’s the matter of changing the displayed time and date format. Any long time Windows or Mac user would expect a dead simple dialog box where the user can do things like click radio buttons to select the options and either directly enter the numbers or use spinner controls or drop lists. Nooooo, not in Lubuntu 16.10! You have to find out the cryptic *code* of percent signs and other characters just to do what should be the easiest task on a computer after turning it on.

        THAT is what’s keeping Linux from gaining more converts – it’s simply not as simple to use as OS X or Windows.

        Someone needs to assemble a team to do a Linux GUI that abstracts *everything* to be at a level of interactivity to where the user never needs to go hunting online or through man pages or even open a terminal window in order to do every common use task. All error messages need to be redone to be specific to what has triggered them. If it takes creating an all new, fully context sensitive error trapping and messaging system, then do it. For a simple case of a service not being installed, like NTP, put an “Install ” button on the error dialog box.

        In other words, make a Linux that outdoes both OS X and Windows on communicating WTF is going on to the user.

        1. There’s a problem with the install button though, and that is that Linux users “love choice” and would not agree on precisely which NTP client that should be used. What if you want something other than ntpd?

          IMO, it’s stupid, but there it is.

        2. Regular Ubuntu has a very simple dialog to choose time format.

          12/24 hour radio buttons, and checkboxes for day of week, date, and seconds.

          You’re using a niche desktop environment, it’s not surprising it’s a little less user-friendly. (How would a novice manage to uninstall NTP in the first place?!)

        3. No. If you want a system like that, go use Windows (OSX disqualified, I remember having to put quite a lot of cryptic stuff into a terminal to get it to do as I wanted). I absolutely hate your attitude, no, not every OS should be windows, if you like windows, go use windows and stop trying to ruin the other systems.. “where the user never needs to open a terminal window” NO! GO AWAY! I don’t WANT to click around with the mouse, or touch the screen. I want to tell my computer what I want it to do, and then press enter. mkdir -p {a,b,c}/{1,2,3} thank you very much. Ubuntu is already doing this way too much! What if I don’t WANT an NTP client? what if it’s an offline system? What if I want to use GPS as a timesource? Yeah, I’m on xubuntu now, and with i3 as a windowmanager, it’s nice enough.. Not everyone in the world want’s it to “just work”, or, there it’s called The Lowest Common Denominator, and it is not desireable as a goal for a computer operating system.

    1. Don’t forget user-unfriendly websites. Many think that light-gray font on white background is the best possible design for their corporate page and provide no way to change that. So when someone with poor eyesight tries to used it, he is basically screwed. NoSquint not always works, and sometimes text-to-speech programs might not be able to read anything from the site.
      Many programmers and web developers never heard about user-friendliness, or user experience. They design EAGLE, Blender, KiCAD and other programs that normal users won’t be able to use without tons of tutorials and documentation. Compare them to DipTrace (learning it took me 10 minutes) or Cinema 4D (this one is rather complex, but it’s much easier to use than Blender – no UI clusterf***).

      1. I totally agree with diptrace! In less then 10 minutes I was able to make my own parts with just the provided help manual and no google! Now go and do that with eagle.

        The thing I find it funny is that when you point out this kind of stuff, the usual reply is “this is a program for professionals”.

      2. I call it “The Vista Effect”. Vista’s Aero Glass UI uses a ‘highlight’ color for selections that is a very light, transparent blue – and it cannot be changed. It’s at its worst in Explorer where there’s next to nil difference in the ‘highlight’ color between selected – inactive and selected – active. You may think you have one file on the right selected but when you hit shift+delete you’ve just obliterated an entire folder tree.

        With Windows 7, Microsoft darkened the ‘highlight’ a tiny smidge and very slightly increased the difference between an active and inactive selection. And we all know for Win 8+ Microsoft threw away all the GUI artsy progress they’d made since Windows 3.1 and went back to flat, saturated colors and sharp corners everywhere, minus the round cornered buttons Win 3.0 had – MS did away with those until XP to satisfy Apple. (Apple Computer, filing lawsuits over round corners since 1990.)

        What they should have done was 1. never done such a stupid thing in the first place 2. made the color and darkness user changeable 3. used a proper *inverse color* HIGHLIGHT for the active selection – like every version of Windows prior to Vista.

        Someone at Microsoft got on their professional graphic designer with perfect vision high horse and would not allow the user peon/proles to make any changes to their Aero Glass ‘perfection’. If you had *any* issues with blue color discrimination you’d have problems. Forget using shift+delete because you *would* end up at some point deleting things you didn’t want to delete.

        So if you wanted things like proper and non-confusable selection highlighting, you had to go with the “classic” GUI – which was hideous because it was ever so subtly *wrong* in many ways different from the simple, non-distracting perfection of Windows 95 through XP. IIRC much of it was from a change in the font used for various GUI elements. It made proportions out of whack.

        That was not Microsoft’s first stupid UI decision. The previous big dumb thing was in Windows 95 where they put the Window Close button in the upper right corner where always before the Minimize button had been. Untold thousands upon thousands of hours of work got lost during the time users had to adapt to the idiotic change. “Minimize my word… OH #$^#$^#$^#^ not again! #$#$^#^ WHY did Microsoft put the CLOSE button THERE!?!” May whomever made that design decision never be able to save any file ever again, for eternity.

    2. @Alphatek

      Actually asking the end user what they want is usually a complete waste of time and effort.

      Most will be unable to articulate what they want and rather than admit this they will simple ‘make it up’.

      Some will describe what they think they want, which is nothing of the kind of course.

      The rest will be an ad-hoc mixture of “I dunno”, “isn’t that your job”, “yeah whatever” and other such phrases.

      To make things worse, if that’s possible, in a corporate environment you often have the UI being designed by either marketing (think ooh shiny on coke) using a whiteboard or dedicated UI designers (think looks cool on weed).

  3. I understand that the hotel stay prompted this article, but the omissions in accommodation from that room are well known accessibility issues. It just sounds like the building met a middle standard for accessibility, but has room for improvement.

    As for the savior trap — and while we’re talking about accessibility — I worry a lot about projects for this hackaday prize falling prey to it.

  4. About a year ago, I was in a discussion with your stereotypical hackerspace member. We were talking about various political issues like the environment, consumerism, etc… and what hit me the most was the limited point of view of this individual. As an example, he was adamant in thinking that a raspberry-pi based, wifi connected, open-sourced heating monitoring system was the only solution to reduce energy waste in this domain, and that everyone should adopt it

    The biggest flaw I could see was that this system wasn’t made for the masses, because not everyone sees this as a problem, and most people wanting to pay less for energy would lack the knowledge to build and maintain this kind of solution. Now that the prototype is working and that you can monitor every aspect of your water heater and change everything about it based on complicated algorithms, it’s time to make it idiot proof, make it work for everyone (and every installation) without a complicated setup, make it simple to use, make it easy to build or to buy premade, etc… Everything that Nest and others have done more or less successfully.

    He wasn’t getting it, being 100% sure that it’s pretty easy for anyone to make this device (or that a group of dedicated hackers could make, install and maintain those systems…)

    As engineers, hackers, , we often don’t see the problems non- people can have with our work. That’s where UX/UI designers, ergonomists and others come into play, but I don’t see a lot of those gals and guys hanging around hackerspaces.

    NB : I’ve been working on and off on a tool lending app for the school I work in. Every other software I could find were way too complicated in the inventory management (lots of unneeded options, meaning lots of noise), and lending or returning an item needed a lot of steps and kilometers of mouse travel. The DB and basic api were finished 10 months ago, the user interface has seen it’s 8th iteration before even going into in-house beta testing : every time, there were too much buttons / functions, making it confusing and error-prone… UI design is hard.

    1. hackaday hate some words that were inside brackets.
      As engineers, hackers, “insert function here” , we often don’t see the problems non-“function” people can have with our work.

    2. “most people wanting to pay less for energy would lack the knowledge to build and maintain this kind of solution.”

      This is the mentality that I see in a lot of single-dev software and, actually, most of the Linux community. “Oh, you just have to apt-get the package and add a line to 87 files. You can figure it out.”

      1. Something like Unknown Device Identifier could be built into Linux GUIs, with a driver finder, downloader and installer *better* than What Windows has in Device Manager. Once the box is able to communicate online, pulling in everything for the rest of the hardware ought to be easy and painless.

        But nobody wants to take that pure common sense usability step and make it happen. They *like* having things be difficult and complex. Keeps out the ‘riffraff’.

        I was attempting to get Lubuntu 16.10 going on an old Compaq NC6000. First hing was I had to figure out how to do the forcepae install option because the 1.7Ghz CPU is in the first generation with PAE, but it doesn’t *explicitly* communicate that to the OS, The OS must either correctly query for PAE, or just assume it’s there and it will work, which it does. The reason for this issue with first generation PAE is because it wasn’t actually needed due to the vast majority of computers at the time still running 32 bit systems, and physically incapable of using thr 4+ gig RAM that required PAE.

        What *should* happen with the install is it would query the CPU type and RAM size… “Oh, THAT CPU, and there’s only one gig RAM, max for this chipset is two gig. I’ll install the non-PAE kernel and not bother the user at all about this.” Why insist upon installing software code that will do absolutely nothing on the computer the OS is being installed onto?

      2. People often forget to consider the possibility that a lot of that niche software is targeted for experts and making it easier to use would be an anti-feature that would fill the forums with questions from people who don’t actually even need the software and should be using something designed for casual use.

        If you compare it to cars, there are cars that are easier to work on at home with standard tools, but maybe they require more maintenance. Another car requires more knowledge and more specialized tools, but once you have those then it becomes easier. So the maintenance is more expert-friendly. And then another car is almost impossible to work on at home even if you know how, but using a fancy computer system at the car shop it is the easiest of all.

        All three of those have use cases where they are the best. Somebody with limited money who likes to take a lot of road trips is probably going to want the vehicle that is easiest to fix. Like an old VW bus or something. Somebody with a full garage of fancy tools who likes tinkering but likes to Do It Right and have the best technology, they’re going to want something more highly engineered but it needs to have decent parts availability, a good service manual, and a computer that tolerates access. And somebody who would never want to do an engine repair on their own might benefit from the car with the best computer diagnostics.

        Most of the linux community have the specialized knowledge, and want to do the repairs themselves. They don’t want the beginner one that anybody can fix because it is less efficient, and they don’t want the fancy one that requires expensive proprietary tools to be fixed at a shop. Making it easier to use for beginners doesn’t benefit them in any way, and it actually gets in the way. In the same way that a car club full of gearheads might not be improved by signing up new members that just want to learn to charge a flat tire.

        1. You forgot to add the superiority complex that goes with the gearhead or linux community : my system is the best, everyone should use it, and I won’t do a thing to help them but give the most cryptic pointers to beginners. I learned to git gud by myself, so will they.

          1. Nah, usually when people ask me “what is that you’re using instead of windows?” (those bright enough to realize that windows is an operating system), I will often answer “It’s called Linux”, and they will ask “Is it _better_ ?” and I will answer “Not really better, just very different, it is better for me, for the way I like to use my computer”. It’s not superiority, it’s about how much you personally _need_ to understand about your world.. Some people are fine with knowing nothing about anything, everything is magic.. Other poeple won’t consider buying something before they have at least some idea of its method of functioning. If I have the choice, I will almost always buy the product that I have a chance of understanding, because it lends itself to more uses, even if it requires a bit more effort leaning how to use it.

    3. University at which I used to study has its own electronic catalog software, designed by one of the students and written in Pascal, IIRC. To find any book one had to learn a list of symbols that meant author’s surname, book title, and other possible criteria of cataloging, and other list of symbols that changed the way results were displayed or sorted. Almost everyone used card catalogs…

      1. Someone should have thumped that student over the head with a book about the Dewey Decimal System. Same for whomever in the library administration that approved and allowed a non-Dewey compliant project to be done.

        1. The university at which I studied uses the Library of Congress classification system, which took me completely by surprise after being told all my life that everyone uses the Dewey system. I’m sure LoC makes sense to some people, but even after having spent five years coping with it, it still looks like a bunch of cryptic symbols to me.

    4. I also question the percieved benefit of adding ‘tech’ to everything as though it automatically solves some problem. Like all this ‘internet of things’ stuff where everything is wi-fi connected, total waste of time.

    1. That swivel hinge. I sent them an e-mail of all the possible ways I could think of that a child could attempt to destroy it, suggesting they do such as part of their testing. I’m pretty sure they never replied.

  5. “It was evident that the designers had put a lot of thought into the features of the room, and though for obvious reasons without the experience of a person with a disability”

    Sounds like a good reason to hire the disabled. “Walk a mile in one’s shoes” and all that.

    1. Once, at a former employer, we hired an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) testing firm to check ADA compliance of our Operations Center. The woman who came to conduct the test was disabled in a wheelchair. The Handicap Lift that was installed to raise a wheelchair and person up TWO steps (the OC had a raised floor for wiring) jammed when she was trying to lower herself back down off the raised floor. We pulled off an access panel and hand twisted the gears to get her down.

    2. No. It sounds like a good reason to get in a wheelchair and experience all the obstacles yourself. Unless you can lift yourself with one hand most probably you will have a good estimation if this is ramp is fine or is it too steep. Can you turn in this bathroom or not. No need to hire anyone

  6. “Context” and “knowing your audience” seem to be the last thing on many engineers’ minds. To this day, technical writing was one of my favorite classes in college because the professor just hammered those concepts into our minds. Empathy (and research) is so important for creating useful solutions. It was like pulling teeth at my last job to get the boss to start a solid testing and feedback program for product development. No one seemed to be concerned whether the devices we were creating were actually useful and not just gimmicks.

  7. The Engineer-Savior aspect that too often goes forgotten is “the social well”.

    I recall some years ago a documentary that involved well pump that had originally been provided by a beneficent NGO. After it failed and no parts or repair were available, the the villagers had to use “the old ways”…climbing down into a grotto then lowering a bucket and handing it up to the next person. It’s a community exercise since it is strenuous and requires a bucket brigade, and everyone talks and socializes during the event.

    They interviewed an older village member who (IIRC) said something like “People came with a nice mechanical pump, but it broke and now we talk to each other again”.

    While this doesn’t excuse featherbrained and unsafe hotel room design, often many “improvements” solve a simple mechanical issue at the expense of a much larger social system and it’s worth thinking about what’s important and what is locally valued.

    1. Reminds me of an article I read about some housings being built to relocate peoples living in poor areas (something like the Favelas in Brazil), and people ending being less happy in these brand new flats because they no longer talk to each other.

    2. this isn’t the fault of the solution or technology, but the way that specific society related to it and each other, social media is doing something similar in the western world, but it is far from difficult to just talk like we used to, people just have something “easier”, so they don’t.

  8. It’s been my experience that true engineers are responsible to only a very small extent for technology-related indignities. Rather, I’ve seen the most egregious from non-engineer managers (at all levels), ‘administrators’ (highly prevalent in education), wanna-be engineers who know a lot of buzz words, politicians, minor–and major–government functionaries, and anyone who wants to elevate his/her status by printing, or directing to have printed, a business card.
    Cue the laughable ‘traffic engineer’ who determines speed limits without ever seeing or travelling the affected thoroughfare, or the “building engineer’ who is called to investigate your complaint of a non-functioning hotel toilet.
    The solution? By modifying the laws which already exist, so that individuals and firms who play fast and loose in using the appellation “engineer” may be–REALLY–legally dealt with.
    Think it won’t work? Ask Microsoft, which very quietly quit “ofifcially” referring to (and allowing them to refer to themselves) anyone who passed a certain test(s) as a “Certified Microsoft Engineer”.

    1. There is an “engineer”, over in the DIY EV list that wants to build (and patent) a device that will extend the range of his electric vehicle (Ford Focus)…

      It consists of wheel that drags behind the car.
      This wheel is connected to four 12V alternators.
      The alternators then charge a bank of 12V batteries.
      The 12V batteries power a 120V AC inverter.
      The inverter then plugs into the on board battery charger.

      He is looking for venture capital to fund his “research”. ;)

        1. Fridge cooling your house isn’t hard, just place the fridge in the door opening with the radiator outside, close the gap between the fridge and door opening.
          then just open the fridge door a little bit.
          there you have it your fridge is cooling your house,
          just remember if you open the fridge door all the way the fridge compressor break from overheating or being overworked.

  9. Hotel rooms in the UK always used to have a Corby trouser press. This, sadly, is no longer the case. Yes, I can probably watch about a billion different TV channels and order a pizza, but I can no longer get my trousers straightened out. Progress? I beg to differ.

    1. I’ve found the TV channel selection pretty dire in most UK hotel rooms. Basic freeview generally with random missing channels. But who needs TV, free wifi is getting better.

  10. From what I read here. Everyone is starting to see the problem.
    This is the beginning of the answers.
    I am very glad.
    I am now one of these people now.
    Don’t feel sad. I am learning to deal with it.
    And once I do I am hoping to be some help to others.
    But for now I am trying to survive.
    Keep up the good work everyone.

  11. “but if its chief benefit is to the would-be saviour rather than to those who it would claim to help, then it cannot be considered appropriate”
    IMHO it can and should be – as long as wanna be saviour is puttin his own cash, time and other resources, and nobody is forced to use those solutions.

    ps. You know that old joke – “Socialism heroically overcomes difficulties unknown in any other system”…?

    1. This, right here. The problem is NOT people wanting to be “saviors”, the problem is people doing it *wrong*. It’s perfectly valid and acceptable for me to notice a problem, and desire to fix it on behalf of someone I have nothing in common with. You notice some things that could use improvement in the hotel room? Great! Fix them! The key is to avoid the pitfalls mentioned in the article, and comments, which basically boil down to caring about the people you’re helping instead of caring about your solution. If you’re unwilling to consider either not doing anything, because the cure is worse than the disease, or throwing all your ideas out and starting over from scratch, then you’re being a dick and should not try to help people. If you are willing to do those things, then get going and help someone!

      1. I’d say this article is a prototypical ‘savior’ endeavor in that it promises one thing, but delivers something else that doesn’t work. The idea that one can see a situation that has an obvious flaw and just wash one’s hands is more politician than engineer.

      2. When I stay in a hotel room, I write down all the deficiencies I find, (loose drawer, leaky faucet, unreadable OLED on alarm clock, etc.) before checking out, I hand the list to the Concierge or Reception Desk. I’m not looking for a discount or apology, I want them to remedy the problems for the next customer who will use that room.

  12. When I was a teenager, I thought would be a good idea to try ease the lives of people working in Asian sweatshops. I thought that living in informal squatter camps, if they were living hand to mouth, If I could halve the cost of food, halve there cast of living, I could make a real difference to their lives.
    I soon realised that if I halved their cost of living, I would only halve the cost of labour. Often the problems are related to power relationships, and dependence on these relationships. Sometimes the problems can’t be engineered away, but can only be solved in the dimensions that causes it. When your car has a flat tyre, it does not help to put fuel in.

  13. “the world is littered with examples of well-meaning people swooping in with miracle solutions to other people’s problems that come from their own perceptions rather than those of the people they are trying to help. ”

    In the United States, most of these people become politicians. ;)

  14. Yeah, I do that a lot. Its hard not to look around and ask “what were they thinking”. After a good many years in software its hard to see something not have the flashbacks start. Memories of failed designs and systems. You try to raise a warning flag but its never heeded. You tell your child the stove is hot, they still have to touch it…

  15. Being a former important to society action hero fire and rescue officer with some engineer and DIY school and experience my transition from body overachiever doing stuff like climbing frozen waterfalls with crampons and ice axes or rappelling out of helicopters with a medical bag to a life after an on the job crushed lower spine was quite difficult. There is simply no substitute to a fully functional nervous system and musculoskeletal system. Batteries, gears, and motors are rubbish in the face of humans who can eat their energy even out in the wilderness and convert it into powerful motion on a scale and longevity unlike anything we have ever built.
    For the most cases it is removing obstacles so that whatever muscle control we have can be used.
    The biggest assistance is to provide an adequate pension to compensate for lost income; being suddenly poor and unable to take advantage of most life hacks is expensive. Also an appropriate vehicle, housing with easy access to the vehicle or on call transportation, no-judgement trained in home assistance, no-judgement counseling for the transition, a society who doesn’t judge or shame and doesn’t expect Olympic athlete or Navy SEAL level performance 24/7 by us to comfort their eyes by acting either ‘normal’ or to over-pay the help for dealing with disgusting us, and yes we want doctors and engineers who will eventually discover how to put us back on a level playing field able to transparently participate as equals in society.
    I am better off than some but I also see average when I go to PT, life is made far more difficult for most people even where there is socialized medicine, and there is always the shame laden bureaucratic maze involved in asking for assistance as well as the threat of faker investigations in the less obvious cases. I can say though that the way I am treated, from best of the heroes to vile leach on society unless and sometimes even when I tell my story(because assumption of lying) is pretty hard to take. I do not deserve to be treated badly especially because I was broken serving my community which I soon had to leave because of the lack of services. Treat us as normal, never show your disgust or pity, and act cool even when you feel disgust; especially if we have to shame ourselves before you and ask you for help. Never never assume we are faking, and don’t you dare ever dilute our fragile standing by faking yourself. Also do not dismiss our ability to be useful, many of us can be or are actually more useful to society, even in a broken state, than you.

    1. Your point about energy is well-taken.

      I was rebuilding a wheelchair for a friend a while ago, and found myself reading the WheelchairDriver forums, and I was taken aback by a power-chair with 45 MILES of range. “Who the heck needs that?”, I asked myself. Then I realized, hey, an able-bodied human can probably walk about that far without food. They wouldn’t enjoy it, any more than the batteries would enjoy being run completely flat, but they *could* if they *needed to*. Having the reserve even if you never use it, is way more comfortable than finishing your normal day’s errands a few percent above totally-boned.

      It’s range-anxiety, just like any other EV! Except unlike a car where, if it doesn’t fit my needs, I can just buy a different car, folks confined to chairs for their mobility don’t have a lot of better options. And especially since pretty much everyone in a chair was put there by circumstances that might provoke plenty of anxiety around everyday situations for other reasons, additional anxiety about something as mundane as energy reserves seems a no-brainer to solve.

      Very shortly thereafter, I bought a crapton of LifePO4 cells.. :)

  16. There is an entire discipline, human centered design, for developing solutions that actually meet the needs of the end user. Step one, and hardest for engineers, is talk to the people who have the problem.

  17. Thanks for the article and the reference to Victor Papanek in the comments.
    I do some work in assistive technology. I work on ideas identified by the people who will use the technology and the occupational therapists who work with them. It is hard to understand the level of disability somebody has until you spend some time with them. Create a prototype and test with the intended users as soon as practical. Often the technology I thought would be a solution has been shown to be completely unsuitable. Fail early, have a rethink, try again.

  18. If “clients” really knew what they wanted before the designers and engineers show up, we wouldn’t have the Agile methodology and 2-week sprints.

    (clients change their minds alot)

    1. I like to call that phenomena “feature creep”. Thankfully, my current job doesn’t experience that near as much as in the past. Still present though. I welcome making changes to an existing product these days because it really just means that we are doing our best to meet the needs of our customers. Even if the specs are really good, you need to leave room for changes when the real world shows you that things were different than you (and others) expected.

  19. I certainly understand the caution being expressed in the article, but very much disagree with this:

    “But the impetus for any such work should come from within the group for which it is intended rather than outsiders”

    Quite often people try to adapt to a system, rather than looking at the system and seeing how it is poorly designed, or could be improved. Part of being an engineer/scientist/tinkerer is that way of seeing, that stepping back and thinking about the things around us and how they work, rather than just thinking about the job at hand. Or even realizing that something isn’t working well. So if you see something that seems inefficient, or broken, bring it up. Ask. Suggest other ways to do it. Most people will just keep doing it that way because that is the way the system works, or that is the way it has always been done.

    Of course you might learn from investigating that there are good reasons why it works that way, and that your idea won’t work. But you might also be pointing out something that could be improved that people didn’t have the perspective or knowledge to see.

    Donald Norman has some nice examples in his books of how some common things can be poorly designed, or better designed.

    Education systems are often lacking in preparing people to be good system designers. For instance, at a major US University, there is no requirement that those studying landscape architecture learn anything about botany, agronomy, or ecology. Small wonder that so many landscape design blunders are perpetrated. (Not only that, but some university grounds maintenance folks won’t consult with the university’s botany/plant pathology/etc. faculty. Gives plenty of examples for the pathology professors to use in their classes of how not to do things, but also embarrassing for the faculty to have such blunders near their building.)

    A concrete example – the downtown Seattle public library is an accessibility and usability nightmare. It is as if they went out of their way to make it as unfriendly to handicapped (and to book cart users). (It is designed as a spiral – few regular floors, just a row of book shelves then a short ramp, then another row of book shelves, then a ramp, for what would be 3 or 4 floors, …) The floor where the meeting rooms are is intentionally extreamly dark (almost no lights, no windows), walls, floor, ceiling, doors all painted dark red. No markings of doors (doors are flush, frames do not stand out). Everything is rounded (No corners – floor to wall transition is rounded). Imagine you had cataracts, or impaired vision, or used crutches/walker/wheelchair. Can’t see. Even for somebody with regular vision it is hard to find doors. Could easily step on a non-flat portion of the wall to floor transition. It is a nightmare. Yet this was built in the last few decades, after people supposedly started to try to accomodate the differently able.

    So, if you see a disaster like this being designed (or even after it is built), speak up. As part of their education, the architects should be strapped into wheelchairs, given a scaveneger hunt list and made to go around the building (also have them wear glasses to simulate vision imparement). Then set off a smoke bomb and make them find their way out (no floors makes it hard to know where you are, and smoke/fire would travel through the whole building in a fire). You have to hold the feet of those who perpetrate atrocities like this to the fire, so they learn to not do it again. (and of those who approve such things as well)

    So if you see an accessibility issue, or safety issue, or whatever. Talk about it. Add it to show and tell list of design blunders. Bring it up to the people who can change it. You may learn something. They may learn something. If there is a problem, something might even be done to improve things, or people might learn to do better in future.

    “The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers.” – Sydney J. Harris

  20. It doesn’t sound like you were preparing to mount a white charger but rather to drive around Mr Bean style.

    Engineering a solution of course doesn’t involve lounging in a hotel room and fighting with features not even measured. That is just pipe-dreaming a solution. Engineering differs in the steps involved.

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