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Saving Lives with Design 430

Posted by Zonk
from the this-is-not-a-political-post dept.
valdean writes "Last year, the White House declassified an August 2001 intelligence brief entitled: 'Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US.' Among other things, the brief mentions that Bin Ladin 'wanted to hijack a US aircraft.' So why was it ignored? Graphic designer Greg Storey thinks part of the reason is poor design. He set out to modify the format of the original document into a more legible one."
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Saving Lives with Design

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  • by qewl (671495) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @01:51AM (#12321011)
    In related news, the declassified document now shows Laden originally planned to use spoons isntead of box cutters to hijack the planes...

    /who came up with that anyway? I've never picked up a spoon and thought, "wow that's a pretty input device.."?
  • hindsight (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hugzz (712021) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @01:52AM (#12321012)
    Hindsight is always 20/20
    • Re:hindsight (Score:5, Insightful)

      by jaxdahl (227487) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @01:54AM (#12321022)
      so let's use this hindsight to improve our foresight
      • Re:hindsight (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward
        Unfortunately, the whole "ex poste" versus "ex ante" thing turns out to be more than a little complicated.

        Even the "design issue" of the original post presuposes that in and amongst a digital info glut, we have ex ante knowledge about which information to highlight with pretty red boxes.

        Shit happens. A lot. Continuously. There is no way to centrally control it. In real life, there is no root.

        The sooner we dispense with the fiction that any entity (esp. government) can "monitor" and "act on" relevant info
        • Re:hindsight (Score:4, Insightful)

          by dnoyeb (547705) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @10:20AM (#12322645) Homepage Journal
          I think the question is do we put real people in real positions with real qualifications. Or do we continue to hire our friends and relatives and cronies to important positions.

          I think this comes from the belief that shit happens and you can't stop it so you might as well give the job to a friend who can't stop it either. I disagree. The politicisation of important US security institutions is going to result in very bad security.
      • Promptly CC'd to the CIA. Now it's another thing if they read it, and by some miracle of god use it.
    • Are you saying bad design can only be recognized in hindsight? Or that having a bad design kill once is an excuse not to change it going forward? Either way, I think you need to go through the Klingon Rite of Design School Passage again. :)

      Bad document template design is easy to show. Give a bunch of document mock-ups to average people and immiedately ask what information the documents convey. See how long it takes them to extract the information and how accurate it is

      • Re:hindsight (Score:3, Insightful)

        by hugzz (712021)
        Are you saying bad design can only be recognized in hindsight? Or that having a bad design kill once is an excuse not to change it going forward?

        i'm saying that it may be oh-so-clear to us now how important this document was, so we may think that it's the fault of the design that it was overlooked; but at the time, regardless of they design, they felt it was overlookable.

        at the time there was no design problem. it was simply not an important document. we only think to blame the design now because, using

    • Re:hindsight (Score:4, Informative)

      by 1u3hr (530656) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @05:42AM (#12321695)
      Hindsight is always 20/20

      So that's why this is news over a year later. The TFA is dated "11 April 04". Slashdot: all the old news, dupes and hoaxes fit to print.

      Anyway, it doesn't matter how the information was presented. Bush DOESN'T READ these reports. [guardian.co.uk] He has his staff read them to him and summarise; even the one page format, which seemed like a dumbing down when Reagan did it, is too much detail for him.

      • Re:hindsight (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Thing 1 (178996)
        Anyway, it doesn't matter how the information was presented. Bush DOESN'T READ these reports. He has his staff read them to him [...]

        Actually, Bush doesn't matter much in this topic. The author's point was simply to keep the existence of the document in the news. By that measure, he's done a good job, regardless of what he chose to highlight about the document.

    • Re:hindsight (Score:3, Insightful)

      by node 3 (115640)
      Hindsight is always 20/20

      An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

      (grossly understated, actually--reading a goddamned memo about a known terrorist planning to attack the US is worth ~3,000 lives, two of the world's tallest buildings, part of the Pentagon, four planes, a "smaller" 40+ story building, the Patriot Act, $300bn+, >1.5k troops, 2 wars (so far), well over 100k innocent civilian deaths, our economy, major loss of respect in the eyes of the world, a state of fear, a society on the fast
  • by TelJanin (784836) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @01:54AM (#12321021)
    While a better designed document might not save the world, I believe it would help the President (Bush or otherwise) to quickly and more effectively discard the facts and act the way he would have otherwise.
    • by quarkscat (697644)
      After studying a number of video clips of Dubya making ad hoc quips/speeches (as opposed to the "canned" party line), I am inclined to agree with the submitter. The PDB's should have been redesigned to match the "My Pet Goat" format, including graphics.
  • by Wyatt Earp (1029) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @01:54AM (#12321023)
    This was all over in the summer of '01. I think the problem was that the focus was on the Genoa summit, they thought the hit was going to be there, so then after nothing happened there was a lull. I remeber Drudge carrying this report on his big font banner in middle to late August for a few days.
  • by imemyself (757318) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @01:55AM (#12321034)
    The problem is, that there are soooooo many theats that its impossible to take all of them seriously. If we did, then people would bitch more about having their liberties taken away, yada yada yada. Hindsight is 20 20. I don't think one intellegience briefing is enough to mandate massive security changes.
    • by commodoresloat (172735) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:14AM (#12321126)
      The problem is, that there are soooooo many theats that its impossible to take all of them seriously.

      That would make sense if this was the first they had ever heard of bin Ladin. By the time of this memo, he had been openly at war with the U.S. for over five years, and had been slaughtering people in ever-more spectacular attacks designed for maximum civilian damage for even longer. He had demonstrated his deadliness and determination to destroy American interests around the world; they goddamn better have taken a memo like this seriously. I don't give a shit what font it is in, this is an important memo. That they missed it -- and ignored the bin Laden threat completely during most of 2001 -- is not excusable.

    • The real issue is that security is a network concept. The U.S. should develope the strengths of this approach. The U.S. is not a closed system - it is quite open in fact. Therefore, accountability, information sharing, and flexible analysis need to be the standard. This is not the case for the current U.S. intelligence community.

      Further, stressing executive-style decisionmaking about what is and is not a threat is ridiculous. There needs to be debate, challenge, and disagreement within intelligence ci
    • I remember thinking at the time that there would be a lot of this 20/20 hindsight critique. I knew that various elements of the plot were sure to have been known by government at the time and there would by a hue and cry that "we should have put it together" and "something could have been done". Sure enough government did know some things, and in some circles the hue and cry has been raised.

      Certainly we should analyze our failures. But much of the critique is just so unrealistic (and in many cases crassly
  • Design or not... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by green pizza (159161) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @01:56AM (#12321037) Homepage
    Design or not, it should have been read... and probably was.

    What should have the government done? Put the whole country under martial law? Shut down all commerical businesses and transportation and unroll millions of miles of razor wire?

    It was a lose-lose situation. Too bad they didn't replace the 85 year old baggage scanners earler. :(
    • by hugzz (712021)
      Too bad they didn't replace the 85 year old baggage scanners earler. :(

      i may be wrong, but i'm pretty sure box cutters were perfectly legal on planes at the time. changing the baggage scanners wouldn't have made a difference

    • Those things have nothing to do with stopping terrorism really. They knew who bin Laden was at that point and they knew the people he associated with. Several of the hijackers were on watch lists. They also knew where bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan were, and they knew quite a bit about his economic network. They knew where his family members and associates were in the U.S. No they should not have shut down all commercial businesses or put us under martial law. They should have used the intelligence
    • What should have the government done? Put the whole country under martial law? Shut down all commerical businesses and transportation and unroll millions of miles of razor wire?

      No, but they certainly shouldn't have used bullshit reductio ad absurdum arguments to justify doing nothing.
    • by Boronx (228853) <evonreis@3.14159 ... ing.com minus pi> on Saturday April 23, 2005 @03:31AM (#12321372) Homepage Journal
      Maybe they should have rounded up the known Al Qaeda members in the US (at least two of the hijackers were known by the governement to be associated with Al Qaeda and to have entered the US), beefed up security on the planes, kept pilots informed, and perhaps most importantly, sifted through FBI field reports to see if there were any leads (there were several).

      Now, if that's too difficult, Bush could have just asked his head of counter terrorism, Richard Clarke, if the threat was serious and what he ought to do about it. Even that, apparantly, was too much to ask from our boy wonder.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 23, 2005 @01:56AM (#12321041)
    No wonder no one paid any attention to the report! Judging by the new document, the whole thing was just full of gibberish beyond the headline!
  • Threat Matrix?? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 23, 2005 @01:57AM (#12321049)
    All a threat matrix does is encourage people to create their own filtering systems.

    "Oh, that Bin Laden warning? Nah, I didn't take it seriously... I only read Threat Matrix 15 and above" ...which instantly puts all of the blame onto the poor sap who allocated it as a 9!

    Better that these kind of documents all look the same, and *force* people to read every word. Those that don't read every word aren't doing their jobs properly.
  • Signal to noise. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Inominate (412637) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:01AM (#12321062)
    SOMEWHERE in the bureaucracy is a document covering every imaginable possibility. That an event was predicted by a document in no way means anyone had any idea it was coming.

    Whenever anything happens, you can always find SOMEONE who predicted it, that doesn't mean they knew it was coming. It just makes it easy to pick the signal out of the noise when you know what you're looking for.
    • by pascalpp (684288)
      Whatever, dude. This was not some random document that someone dug out of the garbage in order to prove some lefty point. This document was a Presidential Daily Briefing given to Bush a month prior to the attacks. Those briefings are very high profile and (one would hope) well-researched. The implications at best are that the administration committed a major oversight in not looking further into the possibilities of such an attack. At worst, there is an implication of willful ignorance or perhaps even compl
    • by jfern (115937)
      This memo was obviously written by someone trying to get Bush's attention to actually give a shit about going after terrorism. Instead Bush went on vacation that month (August 2001).
      • That's my understanding, that the anylists that wrote the briefing did so because they thought the threat was serious and needed attention from the president. (Which, I suppose, must by anything gets the lead in a PDB.
  • Why was it ignored? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by blueberry(4*atan(1)) (621645) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:02AM (#12321065)
    MIHOP/LIHOP. They (neocons) made/wanted it to happen. The Bush regime needed a "catalysing event" to wage war and institute repressive measures in the name of "fighting terrorism". (think Pearl Harbor) It didn't take long for them to then conquer Iraq and establish their 14 military bases at a cost of $300 Billion. Now they are beating the war drums against Iran and threatening the judiciary. Why was it ignored indeed.
    • by zulux (112259) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:40AM (#12321237) Homepage Journal

      As a Neocon overload myself, I can attest to truth of your statement.

      In our defense, the whole "Kill 3,000 Americans and Take over the World" plot came out of a focus group held in Delwa, North Dakota.

      If you've ever been to Delwa, you'd be thankful that the number of deaths was under 3,000 - some of those people are even too crazy for my taste.

      Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some babies to kill and some trees to cut down. I think I'll make the clowns sad again as well - you know, you got to put in extra effort if you want to get anywhere.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 23, 2005 @06:03AM (#12321744)
      Just the fact the US was holding FIVE military exercises on the morning of 9/11, when the planes hit the WTC, and the fact that some of these EXERCISES involved terrorists crashing planes into buildings, should be enough to prove to you that, at the least, the US government had prior knowledge:
      http://www.prisonplanet.com/articles/september2004 /080904wargamescover.htm [prisonplanet.com]

      Also the US government has at least made plans, in the past, to attack its own forces, i.e. blow up a plane, bomb a ship, etc., in order to justify going to war. This has been revealed in declassified government documents. The plan was called "Operation Northwoods":
      http://www2.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20010430/ [gwu.edu]

      Oh, and here is a short documentary "movie" on the 9/11 Pentagon hit: http://www.elchulo.net/files/pentagon.swf [elchulo.net]
  • by nizo (81281) * on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:03AM (#12321072) Homepage Journal
    Remember these are busy politicians. A simple one page graphic of a plane exploding, people on fire, politicians getting blamed, etc. might have better conveyed the message, since apparently the headline "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US" didn't instill the proper amount of concern.
  • Har (Score:3, Interesting)

    by pyth (87680) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:05AM (#12321088)
    The president's response at the time, to either style of report: "Oh, it's just some crazy named Bin Laden. As if terrorists could attack the USA."

    Have you already forgotten the mindset of the US government before the tower-plane collisions?
  • by GeorgeMcBay (106610) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:08AM (#12321095)
    Presidential memos don't support the BLINK tag.
  • Just because it looks like a blog doesn't mean anybody will give it more attention. I ignore millions of blogs everyday, with that kitschy, cliched 'minimalist' design. Whatever. Responsible government officials should be paying attention to anything like that when it crosses their desk. This is a corporate culture problem, not a usability problem. This guy is treating a symptom but it won't remove the cause.
    • I'm curious as to what modern web/document design style you don't consider "kitschy", if you have a problem with that site.

      Got an example of a web page with a design you like? I'm genuinely curious, not just trying to bother you.
  • I have read that government officials thought that Osama wanted to force prisoner release by commercial aircraft highjacking; perhaps of the mullah behind the original World Trade Center bombing.

    On the other hand, I was aware of a Norad exercise that was to address using hijacked planes as missiles. Right after the release of the 9/11 Commision Report, some bright, informed soul at the Arizona Republic ran a brief story about the planned Norad exercise which it turned out had never actually been carried ou
  • by GeorgeMcBay (106610) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:17AM (#12321136)
    Nor is it a Hardware post, despite showing up in that section. But that's ok, because the person who posted it isn't really an editor, either.

    Welcome to Slashdot!
  • by Angst Badger (8636) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:38AM (#12321231)
    This is the goddamn stupidest thing I have ever seen on Slashdot, and that's saying a lot. The idea that memo design led to the 9/11 attacks doesn't deserve a response, except for possibly making armpit noises. Designers are notorious for emphasizing form over content and overrating their minimal importance in the scheme of things, but for fuck's sake, it would be nice to believe -- all evidence to the contrary -- that the National Security Advisor and the President of the United States don't need spiffy document layouts to underscore the seriousness of international terrorist organizations flying jumbo jets into buildings.

    If it's clear, simple design that's at issue, why not just have a crude drawing of a 747 flying into the White House with a 24-point header reading LOOK OUT, GEORGE!

    Fuck. I'm going to have to wash my fucking brain after being around this much stupidity.
  • The people in charge don't want good design. They want plausible deniability.

    When we've got a government that doesn't cater to its own survival, and politicians that are held accountable for their actions and inactions, those in charge will desire good design, as that will make serving the public easier, more transparent, and more efficient.

    Until then, it will just call attention to the fact that the American people are getting screwed.

    Kind of like the snake eating it's own tail - there's just no room f

  • 1000USD spoons and toilets courtesy of the taxpayer (funding various black op's), and they couldn't take fifteen minutes to talk to a graphic designer about making a better word template?

    There is now a hole in my wall, about the size of my head.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 23, 2005 @02:57AM (#12321281)
    This whole thing is a red herring. Read up on the PNAC and you'll learn that the Bush Administration is filled with people who have been DYING for a war of this kind you have with Iraq right now. Put aside your hatred of Michael Moore for a few minutes to figure out that OTHER PEOPLE have also shown links between the Bush's and the Bin Ladens and Saudi Royals, and you'll see why the Bush Administration wants to conveniently ignore those connections.

    It's all moot anyway. They wanted a war to legally embezzle $300 Billion from Americans in contracts, and wanted to fool everybody about it so they could get a second term in the white house. Mission Accomplished.

    It's now well-known that Hussein didn't have the weapons, was never a threat, and yet the war was started anyway. They've played it down pretending that they're learning about Hussein's lack of weapons at the same time we are, but that's not true. They knew it all along. Ask yourself about the sort of ethics somebody would need to have to do what they've done.

    Now ask yourself if those ethics are consistent with seeing a memo and disregarding it.

    Anybody who buys into the idea that the attacks were the result of poor design is a FOOL. The system may be imperfect, but it worked. The memo got to the top of the chain in time for Bush to do something about it. He did nothing.
  • what is most importand is the big red number 9 on the design. Now we know that this should ahve been a big red number 9. If somebody of Al Quada tells now that they are planning a huge attack on a harbour in the US, how serious would you take that? What are you going to do about it?

    If I were a terroris, I would cry wolf all the time and perhaps once every 10.000 cries I would strike.

    Remeber, a terrorist does only have to hit once and the defence can NEVER miss.
  • analysts will not put their heads on the block and categorically state that something IS going to happen... it's always hedged with extra bumph to allow them to state that there might be a possibility of an event at some nebulous date in the future, but they have no specifics as to what it actually is or exactly when...

    hard intelligence is extremely difficult to get hold of... and if you do have it, using it can give away the fact that you have it to the enemy, who will then conduct a witch-hunt to find

  • Design (Score:2, Informative)

    by rathehun (818491)
    Now I don't expect everyone on /. to be stupid, but I don't expect them to be stupid in the extreme either.

    No where in TFA does it say that "Design could have prevented 9/11".

    Usability is something which can help. Think about hospital steps. If there is a ramp there, it helps people with wheelchairs get up there. Sure, ramps don't go around saving lives by throwing themselves over bombs or anything, but they do help by helping people use the facility.

    Now - look at the two different documents. What is

  • The problem, very simply, is a president who doesn't read, and who listens only to his hand-picked yes-men.

    (Yes, I do understand that this is over-simplification. But it is nonetheless an important issue. It explains more than this individual problem. The never-ending effort in this administration to stop the buck anywhere but at the president's desk makes me tired.)

  • Tufte, anyone? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by shpoffo (114124) <nospam.newalexandria@org> on Saturday April 23, 2005 @03:36AM (#12321386) Homepage
    It sounds like he's trying to one-up Edward Tufte [edwardtufte.com], who had published a well-read report on the slide presentation [edwardtufte.com] that led to the Columbia Disaster [nasa.gov]. I guess we could use a few more such public analyses before people will begin to realize the reach of what falls under "Interface Design" and how critical it is our functioning in the complex system we've created.

    THE INTERFACE IS THE INFORMATION. If you don't have an interface, you don't have any information. Period.

    Incidentally, I can think of a few reasons not to implement some of the changes that Storey suggests:
    - Bolded and highlighted text may draw the eye toward material that was incorrectly analyzed; or the burdern of analysis may fall upon the reader of that (original) memo.
    - The threat level may not be something that is established, but rather something that is established through decisions that come from this document

    Whether these kinds of metrics are appropriate in the case of the President is unknown to me. My main here is to illustrate that Storey's ideas, though thoughtful, are perhaps a bit sensational.
    .
    -shpoffo
    kNOw Research
  • Reminds me of that 2DTV sketch with Bush and his general:

    General: "Its time for your 3 o'clock briefing Mr President"
    Bush: "Err? Huh?"
    General (sigh) *pulls out big novelty Mickey Mouse clock with pictures on it* "What time is it sir?"
    Bush: (excited) "Its mousy time!!"
  • Revisionism (Score:4, Informative)

    by pudge (3605) * <slashdot@NOSpAM.pudge.net> on Saturday April 23, 2005 @10:17AM (#12322635) Homepage Journal
    This is nice revisionism and all, but there is no evidence that the memo in question was "ignored." The 9/11 Commission notes quite plainly on page 342 that:
    Despite such reports and a 1999 paper on Bin Ladin's command structure for al Qaeda,there were no complete portraits of his strategy or of the extent of his organization's involvement in past terrorist attacks.Nor had the intelligence community provided an authoritative depiction of his organization's relationships with other governments,or the scale of the threat his organization posed to the United States.

    Further:
    Whatever the weaknesses in the CIA's portraiture,both Presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush and their top advisers told us they got the picture--they understood Bin Ladin was a danger.But given the character and pace of their policy efforts,we do not believe they fully understood just how many people al Qaeda might kill,and how soon it might do it.At some level that is hard to define,we believe the threat had not yet become compelling.

    In other words, it's not that they didn't realize what the memos said, but at the time, the memos did not amount to compelling evidence of the threat we now know was coming.

    Now, you can feel free to disagree with the 9/11 Commission. But to say as a statement of fact that it was ignored is, well, ignoring the evidence (and inventing new evidence).
  • by tqbf (59350) on Saturday April 23, 2005 @10:25AM (#12322667) Homepage

    Tufte's well-known critique of the Columbia presentation, and his famous critique of the Challenger data, centered on the use of visual evidence (idiotic charts, statistically incompetant graphs) and, in the former case, on the manner in which the medium (PowerPoint) butchered the message by making chopping it up into incomprehensible hamster pellets of information.

    The author here seems to be making the case that ugly typeface and a poor use of color are to blame; that if we just added a few horizontal rules, maybe put the PDB on nice stationary, it would have been more effective.

    When facing a dearth of actionable, analyzable data (like a chart with 4 data points), Tufte is likely as not to advocate doing exactly what the original PDB did, which is to stuff it into prose paragraphs.

    Tufte's design criticism work is serious, if perhaps overrated. This new one is just an advertisement for a web designer.

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