Thursday, August 13, 2009 7:20 | Filed in Books, Reviews

Erronomics (Amazon)

Errornomics by Joseph T Hallinan is another non-fiction book, which obviously means it comes with a bonus free subtitle: “Why We Make Mistakes and What We Can Do to Avoid Them”.

Talking of mistakes, Amazon said that the book was released in paperback on the 6th of August, but as I’d bought it, read it, and started to write this review before that time, I’m not entirely convinced on that. I bought this book expecting it to be a toolkit: to point out different ways in which we think about things, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and how we can learn from this. I like these sorts of books, and I expected to like this one as well.

And there is quite a lot to like in here. There is a mix of quirky, interesting but mostly useless information:

…most of us, whether left- or right-handed, show an inordinate preference for the number 7 and the color blueErrornomics, p4

…and there’s also stuff which I can relate directly to my field of t’interweb, as the book talks about the usability of systems (although without using that specific name), pointing out that when a system is used incorrectly, human error is normally blamed, even though it should maybe be considered that the system has not been designed in the most appropriate manner and therefore the system should maybe considered to be at fault. In other words, the user fail is not a user fail at all, but a usability fail.

How many things does your car require you to remember? Onboard navigation system? Cruise control? Anticollision warning device? Blind spot warning device? Rearview camera? Entertainment system for the kids? Cell phone? Cars now come with so many of these devices that the systems themselves are contributing to accidents because they increase driver distraction. Yet who gets blamed for the accident — you or the car?Errornomics p4

The point being made her is obvious. The bells and whistles described make the actual main purpose of the vehicle (getting from A to B without an accident) more difficult to achieve. Although to be honest, in my case as I don’t have any of the above in my car, this means that while my car might well be more usable, it’s also more likely that any accident is my fault…

There are a lot of interesting insights into the way human nature works — for example how gamblers will think of their losses as “near wins” (if he’d scored that goal, which he would normally have done, I would have won) whereas they don’t rationalise away their wins as fortunate in the same way — and it also tells us how we are influenced by advertising is much more than we would acknowledge or even believe.

A few years ago, for instance, researchers in Britain wanted to determine whether music affected the choice of wine bought in grocery stores [...] Then they played French and German music on alternate days [...] When French music was played, forty bottles of French wine were sold. But when the German music was played, sales of the French wines plunged to just twelve bottles. The same trend held true for German wines: when German music was played, 22 bottles of German wine were sold. But when French music was played, sales fell to just eight bottles of German wine.[...]

Of forty-four shoppers interviewed, only 6 (about 14 percent) said their choice of wine had been influenced by the music

Errornomics p92

The book also provides some tools to help us avoid making mistakes — keep track of negative outcomes as well as positive ones, so you don’t just rationalise based on what worked, and it’s quite a remarkable look into what works.

However, I do have one gripe with it. It’s an American book. Nothing inherently wrong in that, it’s just that the examples and analogies are almost unfailingly American analogies — football being a reference to that stuff with ‘touchdowns’ and so on. After a while, this gets a little aggravating. It wouldn’t have taken a great deal of effort to go through the book and change some of the language and examples (not all of them, but even just the least “global” ones) to make them more accessible to a European audience. For that audience, the book could have been improved considerably with only some really minor editing, and it’s a shame that no-one considered it…

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