Design your story to fit humans
Summary: The best tools are designed to be ergonomic — to be fitted to people, rather than asking people to fit them. Similarly, as a storyteller, you should design your stories to fit the way people's minds work.
In the 1940s, a psychologist named Paul Morris Fitts led an investigation into mistakes made by aircraft pilots or their crew members. He reviewed nearly three hundred documented cases, looking for patterns. Suprisingly, he found that the largest single group of errors — more than ten percent — were due to exactly the same mistake.
What was the mistake? Misreading the altimeter by exactly one thousand feet. Fitts, Paul M. and R. E. Jones. “Psychological aspects of instrument display: 1: Analysis of 270 ‘pilot-error’ experiences in reading and interpreting aircraft instruments.” U.S. Air Force Air Material Command. Aero Medical Laboratory Engineering Division. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, OH. 1 October 1947. https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/pdfs/ADA800143.pdf.Fitts and Jones. “Instrument display.”
A clever solution to an engineering challenge
The altimeter is a little device that uses barometric pressure to tell a pilot how high above sea level the plane is flying. If a pilot knows both 1) the aircraft’s elevation above sea level and 2) the elevation of the ground, the pilot can determine the distance to the ground by subtracting the ground level from the reading on the altimeter.
For obvious reasons, getting this calculation correct is especially important when attempting to land the plane.
The designers of these altimeters faced an interesting challenge. Altimeters must provide a wide range of altitude — at the time, up to 40,000 feet. But, they must also provide a fine-grained definition between narrow distances during landing. A miscalculation of fifty feet could mean the difference between touching down on a runway or crashing into the field beyond.
This presented designers with a problem. If the gauge was optimized to show the full, 40,000 foot range, it would be useless to show the smaller distances. But if it showed the smaller distances with high enough granularity, the gauge couldn’t possibly show the full range — it would need to fill the entire cockpit.
They settled upon a clever solution that repurposed a pattern that had been established for centuries. The gauges had multiple pointers, like a clock face.
Each of three pointers on the altimiter represented a different scale increment. Combined, a pilot could read the three hands and calculate altitude with precision across the full, 40,000 foot range. It was ingenious.
And it was killing people.
The engineering solution created a human problem
In the fractions of a second that pilots had available to glance at the reading, parse the positions of the three hands, and calculate a measurement, something was going wrong.
Perhaps it was that reading three hands under such conditions is too complex, and occasional error is inevitable. Perhaps it was that, in such a short glance, pilots were confusing one hand for another. Perhaps it was that the location of the altimeter among the flight instruments created a parallax effect, where the height of the needles above the face caused them, at an angle, to appear transposed to another number. Regardless of the cause, the effect was disastrous.
Individually, each misreading that Fitts investigated could be attributed to simple pilot error. But, taken together, it became clear that something else happening. The problem wasn’t with the pilots; it was with the altimeters. While the three hands were clear enough for the low-stakes scenario of checking the time, they simply didn’t cut it for the split-second needs of aircraft landing. The design needed to change.
Design things to fit people, not the other way around
This finding, and others like it, prompted Fitts to make a series of recommendations for changes to cockpit designs.
His overall point was that the way cockpits were being designed was exactly backward. The controls and gauges were being selected based on engineering constraints, and then pilots were trained on how to understand and use them. Fitts recommended the opposite. First select the design based on how humans naturally think and behave and then engineer the cockpit from there.
This fundamental shift — from fitting people to things to fitting things to people — is at the heart of a discipline now called Human Factors or, as might be more familiar to some, Ergonomics.
The key tenant of the discipline is to understand how people naturally think and behave and inhabit the world, and then shape products, interfaces, and ideas to them.
The principle applies to stories just as much as to aircraft
While the stakes for storytellers and aircraft designers may be different, the fundamental principle applies in both cases. Story audiences are human, too, after all.
There are certain ways that audiences receive, parse, and process story information. Certain things that make stories easier or more difficult to absorb and apply. If we go against the grain, we risk our stories being like the altimeters — engineered to express all the data, but failing to truly communicate it.
“I just couldn’t get into it.” “It was too unrealistic.” “It started off great but then went nowhere.” — these are the things you’ll hear from your audience. The fundamentals of your story idea may be solid, but if you’re missing the “human factor,” your audience will still bounce off of it.
Study your craft
This is why studying the fundamentals of craft is so valuable. Under the surface, a lot of good technique — mastering things like structure and scene format and escalation and turning points — is simply aligning the flow of story with how the human mind works most naturally.
So, study your craft. It’ll help your story “stick the landing.”
Oh — and whatever happened to the altimeters? Further research arrived at a handful of improvements, some of which have even made it into modern, digital cockpit displays today . . . and none of which rely on three hands like a clock.
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