28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part IV

If you hold it like a gun and fire it like a gun, it should be a gun.

On the first of January 2009, during a dispute caught on several video cameras by witnesses at the BART station in Oakland, Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a BART officer who now claims he had mistaken his handgun for a taser. I don’t want this to become a political or personally heated topic here, but regardless of whether the shooter is just saying this for a chance at lowering his sentence, it brought up something that needs to be addressed.

Until the incident and ensuing assertion concerning this bout of human error, I had always thought of tasers in the shape of cattle prods, but with shorter handles. Apparently I was pretty far from the truth.

This is a police-issue taser, despite its resemblance to something I played with as a kid, pretending to guard my space station (bunk bed) from hordes of deadly aliens (army men). Its shape is immediately recognizable, its functionality easily identifiable. There is one huge problem with this: cops also have guns.

This is a gun. It shoots projectiles meant to kill humans.

In fact, the main difference is that the gun is meant to kill, and the taser is meant to stun. So why does it matter that the two have so much in common?

Regarding interaction, sensory fatigue sets in when a product is so regularly used or procedure so commonly practiced that it becomes second nature, and very little thought is given to what’s going on in the background. For instance, I don’t need to consciously think about pressing the clutch pedal when I shift gears in a car, or think too hard about the steps involved in making a sandwich. Because of this, unless something out of place grabs my attention, I don’t give much thought to what I’m doing. Sensory fatigue is generally an asset to us all, as we need to focus our attention on steering rather than shifting, on sentence structure rather than spelling all but the most complex and least frequently used words.

The flaw in the taser’s design is its context. Most police officers carry loaded firearms which share three significant properties with the taser: its location on the belt, the shape and style of its grip, and its trigger.

Aware that the taser is far less dangerous than a pistol, a police officer doesn’t need to be quite as apprehensive about using it, and in this sense, the taser has probably spared a good number of lives on both sides of the law. But this also supplies the subconscious with the idea that drawing a gun-shaped object from a gun-bearing belt and pulling its gun-like trigger is a safe thing to do.

As explained in Kim Vicente’s The Human Factor, the phrase “human error” is often thrown around without laying at least a little worthy blame on the developers of a product who didn’t fully take into account the intended audience. In this case (if the plea is to be believed), a police officer who was used to firing a gun with little consequence has fatally wounded a man he thought he was merely shocking with a little electricity. Two entirely different results from two unfortunately similar weapons.

How should we remedy this problem? First, recall all gun-shaped tasers. Review the shape and trigger mechanisms, and design both to allow the new taser to be easily distinguished from a handgun. Perhaps an overhand grip with a push-button trigger. Then provide a separate holster for the taser, such as on the chest or leg. Somewhere an officer would never think to grab a gun. Make sure the gun and taser can’t accidentally switch places by making the holster accept only one shape.

I’m the last person who could imagine what goes on inside the brain of a police officer, or behind the scenes of law enforcement. But with all the typos I’ve made writing this passage alone, I know well the human capacity to make mistakes, and thankfully there are teams of people happy to find potential problems such as this and fix them before they start. Unfortunately, this one hasn’t been fixed yet, and hopefully this fatality will help the appropriate people realize what needs to be done.


1 Response to “28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part IV”

  1. 1 aaronpk March 24, 2010 at 11:07 pm

    Very well said. It’s nice to see a post about this topic from a UI point of view rather than a political one.

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