What IT Vendors Can Learn From an Airplane Redesign

Boeing's redesign of the overhead call buttons should be a reminder to all IT vendors that it's better late than never to listen to your customers.

Great design really does matter, in everything from overhead buttons in an airliner's passenger cabin to critical functions in enterprise software, hardware and even consumer electronics.

That's why it's too bad that we really don't think much about this huge subject. The problem is that bad designs in all kinds of products are released regularly and consumers and IT users then have to find ways of coping. Think work-arounds.

I always wonder what would happen if software, hardware and consumer electronics were designed by the people who actually use them rather than by designers who often don't seem to have a clue.

This week, though, something happened that gives me a bit of hope — Boeing has announced that its new generations of its model 737 series passenger jets are finally getting overhead flight attendant call buttons that look different from and are placed away from the overhead reading light buttons that have for years been mistaken by passengers for the attendant call buttons.

You know the buttons. They're those pesky little targets that you and I and everyone else on the crowded planes we fly in are accidentally mixing up with the overhead reading light buttons because they sit right next to each other and have the same shape and size. Who in the world ever decided to set them up this way in the first place?

Apparently it was a clueless designer who has never used one of the buttons.

Boeing's innovation, which sounds small but could actually be huge, was announced this week at the Paris Air Show where the company is showing off its new 737 jets, according to a Reuters New Service story.

"On every flight somebody pushes the wrong button," Tim Techt, Technical Pilot for airberlin, told Reuters in the story. "It is an issue for flight attendants" because they have to react to errant button pushing throughout their long flights. Airberlin is the first airline to take delivery of 737s with the new design, according to the story.

The call button/light button conundrum has been so annoying for so long that it's even made its way onto a Bad Designs List online.

Tom Brabant, a spokesman for The Boeing Co., said in an interview today that the button redesign is part of a broader overall interior redesign being done in the 737s. The changes came about because of great feedback Boeing received about the interiors of its newest planes, the oft-delayed model 787 series, which is now slated for delivery starting later this year.

"That 787 interior concept has been so well-embraced by the media and customers that we decided to take what we did in the 787 interior and do as much as we can for passenger comfort by placing it in our existing product line," he says. "These call buttons being so close to the overhead light button have been a problem for a long time. It's a wonderful opportunity to [change] it and it was great timing."

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