Rampant Incompetence

December 17, 2006 - Reading time: 4 minutes

Most of the problems we face every day can be traced back to a single cause: rampant incompetence.  People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities: driving skills, problem-solving skills, logical prowess, engineering expertise, and so on.  Incompetence does more than cause the unskilled to reach erroneous conclusions or make unfortunate choices: it robs them of the ability to recognize their mistakes.  The upshot of this is that the incompetent, in addition to frequently being wrong, also tend to be unshakably confident [1].

Engineers are by no means an exception, but as designers of everyday products, we have the ability to cause a great deal of misery as our incomprehensible designs are thrust upon the public.

One way to avoid this general misery is to ensure that new engineers are well-rounded and at least familiar with all of the fields that may seem tangential at best to their chosen area of study.  Engineering is inextricably linked with society: no major engineering problem is without some cultural, social, legal, economic, environmental, or aesthetic component, and this must be taught to engineers from the beginning of their training.  Sadly, undergraduate engineering programs do not come close to achieving this.  Engineering students are not required (or even encouraged) to take classes in human interface design, human-machine interaction, industrial design, psychology, or other human factors subjects.  Humanities classes at most engineering schools are generally not well coordinated, and as a result the humanities tend to be a closed book to most engineers (a burned and buried book for some).  The result is crop after crop of supremely self-confident engineers that cannot produce products the average person can reasonably expect to use.

Another solution is to unveil poor design for all to see, with the hope that engineers will take note and learn from the mistakes of others.  That's the main purpose of this site (my witty social commentary and the interesting details of my life are merely a bonus).  The problems I point out may not always seem obvious, but remember that poor design doesn't just affect consumers: it also affects installers, maintainers, and the future generations that may have to upgrade the design later in its life.

The idea of an elegant and functional design should not be confused with aesthetics.  No doubt a visually pleasing design is worthwhile, but the first priority should always be to make the design functional.  Much time and money is spent dressing up poor designs; it sometimes seems that the motive for designers to expend this energy might just be to prove that if we can't make things work properly, we can at least make them presentable.  The state of the art in so many fields is, at best, a poor compromise.  The most common methods of generating electricity involve creating heat to turn water in to steam, an incredibly wasteful and inefficient process; almost all mechanical forms of propulsion involve blowing things up, producing pollution and creating hazards.  Or think in more everyday terms: a dinner table should be easily variable in size and height, impervious to scratches or stains, self-cleaning, and have no legs to get in the way of diners.  That may seem a bit ambitious, but the fact is that most things we use every day are far from ideal.  Inconvenience is the mother of invention, but invention is not possible without competent engineers.  Engineering has been degraded to the art of constructing; so much of what we design is an improvisation, inept, provisional [2].

The first step in resolving this is to recognize our shortcomings.  My goal here is to point some of them out.  I have some obvious biases, but part of being a good engineer is to get around those in order to create something worthwhile and appropriate, and I strive to do that here.  If you think I'm failing, or succeeding, do let me know.

[1] J. Kruger, D. Dunning, "Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 77, no. 6, Dec,. pp. 1121-1134.

[2] D. Pye, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, 1971