Design theater

You've heard of security theater. As Bruce Schneier, who coined the term, defines it:

Security theater refers to security measures that make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security. An example: the photo ID checks that have sprung up in office buildings. No-one has ever explained why verifying that someone has a photo ID provides any actual security, but it looks like security to have a uniformed guard-for-hire looking at ID cards. Airport-security examples include the National Guard troops stationed at US airports in the months after 9/11 -- their guns had no bullets. The US colour-coded system of threat levels, the pervasive harassment of photographers, and the metal detectors that are increasingly common in hotels and office buildings since the Mumbai terrorist attacks, are additional examples.

Karen Levy and Tim Hwang argue we're going to see the rise of design theater.

Here’s a speculation of science fiction that is rapidly manifesting into a real nuts-and-bolts design debate with wide-ranging implications: should self-driving cars have steering wheels?
The corporate battle lines are already being drawn on this particular issue. Google announced its autonomous car prototype last year, drawing much attention for its complete absence of a steering wheel. The reason for this radical departure? The car simply “didn’t need them.
Take a step back: a steering wheel implies a need to steer, something that the autonomous car is designed specifically to eliminate. In a near future of safe autonomous driving technologies, the purpose of the steering wheel is largely talismanic. More than actually serving any practical function, the steering wheel seems bound to become a mere comfort blanket to assuage the fears of the driver.
This is a classic problem. Consumers refuse to adopt a new technology if it visibly disempowers them or departs radically from trusted patterns of practice. This is the case even when the system is better at a task than a human operator — as in the case of the self-driving car, which is safer than a human driver.

I'm not so sure a steering wheel is superfluous given what I know of self-driving cars today. Many situations can't be handled by those cars now, and may not be easy to handle for many many years, so I suspect most self-driving cars will need a steering wheel to allow manual takeover in such situations.

That aside, the piece is a fantastic read. I loved this link to an article about a car proposal from 1899 car that included a giant wooden horse head stuck on the front of the vehicle. Remember, if you ask users what they want, they'll say they want a faster vehicle with a wooden horse head in front.

The first hood ornament: a giant horse head? Maybe in The Godfather someone was just trying to tell Jack Woltz they stole his car?

Not all design theater is nefarious. The authors elaborate:

How should we think about the ethics of design theater? Our initial reaction might be that misleading consumers about the nature of a technology is always wrong. In lots of areas, we enforce the idea that people have a right to know what they’re buying (consider rules about honest packaging and labeling, from knowing what ingredients are in our food to being informed about the possible health consequences of exposure to certain substances). But just as humans’ front stage performances are necessary for social life to function, it’s important for technologies to integrate into social life in ways that make them usable and understandable. Though some designers find skeuomorphism ugly or aesthetically inauthentic, it’s tough to find a serious ethical problem with a design feature that’s genuinely intended to guide usability.
There also doesn’t seem to be a tremendous ethical problem with theaters designed for certain laudable social purposes, like safety and protection. Nothing makes this clearer than artificial engine noise. Because modern electric cars are so much quieter than their internal-combustion predecessors, it’s much harder for pedestrians to hear them approaching. Since we’re used to listening for engine noise as a safety cue, a silent vehicle can more readily “sneak up” on us and cause accidents. Over time, if all vehicles become silent, many of us would no doubt lose this subconscious reliance — but the consequences of losing the cue altogether can be very dangerous in the shorter term, especially for pedestrians with visual impairments.