Technologic Turbulence: Familiarity and Usability at 5,500 ft

When I got my Private Pilot license in 1996 piloting a General Aviation aircraft was a manual and cumbersome process. The radio was nothing more than a couple of seven segment displays with knobs and a toggle button for activating a frequency. There were paper charts and paper airport directories. I remember one time I was on a long flight during my training and my window popped open on me (the planes I get to fly are typically knocking on 40 years old. They're safe but, they've got quirks) sending my charts and paperwork whirling in the cockpit! Now in 2015 there's not much risk of my charts being set to the breeze as my old paper charts and airport directories have been replaced by an app on my iPad. The radio is now also a monster GPS contraption with knobs that are actually buttons too and there may or may not be a touch screen. Make no mistake, the value in this new technology is clear to me. But by golly learning this technology was the most overwhelming part of getting back in the cockpit for me.

Outside the cockpit between 1996 and 2015, I was adjusting to technology weaving itself deeper and deeper into my, and really all our daily lives. Cellphones got smaller and smarter. Dial-up local Bulletin Board Systems gave way to high speed Internet and we all got on-line. In 2010 when I came out to the Twin Cities to look for a place to live, I bought a street map from a gas station so I could get around. Now, and for a few years already, there's an app for that. I was never really jarred by the new technology. The "That's cool!" factor tended to carry the day more than anything. Then I decided to fly again.

Adjusting to the technology in the cockpit disrupted every aspect of my flying. I was learning to use an powerful and wonderful yet complicated app to access information while relearning how to perform as a Pilot in Command after 19 years. For navigating, yeah I could look down and try to match a lake on my map in my app, but I was encouraged by my instructor to get to know the GPS with the less than lovely user interface. Imagine for a moment taking one of the most frustrating and unintuitive apps or websites you know, and having to rely on that to tune your radio so you can talk to a control tower. Then having to use it to find the navigation features you currently need amongst the collection of 12 other functionalities the thing has that are labeled with cryptic symbols, if at all. While traveling 5,500ft off the ground. While needing to make sure you don't put yourself in airspace that you're not cleared to go. While keeping your eyes open for other air traffic.

In that moment up there, I was that "dumb" user to those who are savvy with the technology by virtue of growing up with it and being in it all the time. I've done usability testing, and I've seen users struggle with designs I thought were the easiest thing ever and I learned from that. Adjusting to the technology in the cockpit gave me the experience of being that user!

I did adjust to it and I got my savvy, though it was a lot to take in. And no one can take my technology in the cockpit away from me now either! It's mine! 🙂 My devotion to the difficult technology comes from back in 1996 when I was flying from Green Bay to Woodbury, WI to have my practical exam, cause I got lost. Below me all I could see was trees, trees and more trees. Well, there was this cloud of smoke on the horizon. I called the airport on the radio and hoped that the cloud would act as some reference for them to help me figure out where I was but nope. They had no idea what I was talking about. I didn't panic, I found some matching shapes on my chart to the land sprawling out below me and I found my way to the airport and proceeded to pass my exam. Today, on getting used to the hard to use but gosh golly is it useful technology, I can't imagine my getting lost story unfolding for anyone.

I want to take away how much that technology in the cockpit shocked me. As a Software Engineer I don't get many experiences of being a non-power user when it comes to technology. This experience is a opportunity to remember that what's easy for me, isn't necessarily easy for all. May my experience of wrestling with technology at 5,500ft help me remain mindful of keeping a plan for everyone. 🙂