Tagged: Interaction Design

The Impact of Groupthink in Decision Systems


“Together with his identical twin brother, Scott, he has laid the groundwork for the future of space exploration as the subjects of an unprecedented NASA study on how space affects the human body, which is featured in Scott’s New York Times best-selling memoir, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery.”

“Currently, Mark is on the Commercial Crew Safety Board at Space X […] and is the co-founder of World View, a full-service commercial space launch provider.”

Endeavour to Succeed. College of DuPage, Department of Physics. February 14 2019.


I managed to attend Captain Mark Kelly’s talk in Chicago just the day before I was leaving for Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress. M. Kelly’s presence and insightful remarks commanded both admiration and utmost respect.

Among many other fascinating topics, he discussed NASA’s None of US is as Dumb as All of Us as a reminder of the negative impact of ‘groupthink‘ in the context of faulty decision making. Most specifically, he referred to dramatic mistakes leading to the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, which disintegrated upon re-entry in 2003.

“Large-scale engineered systems are more than just a collection of technological artifacts. They are a reflection of the structure, management, procedures, and culture of the engineering organization that created them.”

“They are also, usually, a reflection of the society in which they were created. The causes of accidents are frequently, if not always, rooted in the organization—its culture, management, and structure.”

“Blame for accidents is often placed on equipment failure or operator error without recognizing the social, organizational, and managerial factors that made such errors and defects inevitable.”

Nancy G. Leveson, MIT. Technical and Managerial Factors in the NASA Challenger and Columbia Losses: Looking Forward to the Future. Controversies in Science and Technology Volume 2, Mary Ann Liebert Press, 2008.

NASA 1Groupthink is part of the taxonomy of well-known cognitive biases and takes hold when divergent thinking and disagreement are discouraged (and even repressed) as part of group dynamics.

Hindsight is 20/20 and, statistically speaking, ‘black swan’ events are characterized by seemingly random surprise factors. Groupthink can obfuscate the early detection of predictors such as leading outliers and anomalies, which left unattended can overwhelm a given system over time… and be the source of cascading effects and critical failure.

Groupthink’s negative impact compromises any best intentions such as organizational cohesiveness in the spirit of consensus, agility, productivity, timely project progress and de-escalation management.

Often times, there might be neither adequate situational and risk awareness nor a basis for sense making drawing from the comparative analysis that comes with diligent scenario planning.

Individuals and organizational cultures with a succesful track record can also experience complacency. Over-confidence fosters the sort of behaviors and decisioning that served the group well in the past.

Though, when in the mix of a changing environment defined by new parameters under the radar, only operating within the perimeter of a given set of core competences and comfort zones, makes those specific behaviors blindsight and betray the team’s mission and purpose.

Many plans do not survive first contact (or a subsequent phase for that matter) as their implementation creates ‘ripple effects’ of various shapes and propagating speeds. Some of that can be experienced as ‘sudden risk exposure.’ Once passed the ‘point-of-no-return,’ if that challenge is met with neither contingency planning nor the ability to timely course correct, pivot or even deploy a basic safety-net offsetting the impact, the project fails to ‘cross the chasm’ and is headed for what’s technically known as the ‘valley of death.’

This was one of the key issues discussed by Clyton M. Christiansen when I took his Harvard class on the ‘Innovator’s Dilemma,’ and is also a key point behind Risto Siilasmaa’s ‘Paranoid Optimism’ as well Paul Romer’s ‘Conditional Optimism,’ all of which advocate for scenario planning and sensing optimization to be able to calibrate or re-assess the path forward.

“Michael Shermer stated in the September 2002 issue of Scientific American, ‘smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for nonsmart reasons.”

Groupthink can also manifest itself by means of ‘eco chamber’ effects’ as misguided consensus amplifies what becomes a “self-serving” bias. That is, in effect, a closed feedback loop process that magnifies logical fallacies. These can come across as reasonable enough postulates, though if based on rushed judgement and selective focus they can also suffer from ‘confirmation bias.’ This is the case when new evidence is only used to back-up the existing belief system rather than share new light.

In the context of Decision Support Systems and Cognitive Analytics, the above reasoning deficits become root causes of errors impacting operations. That can involve both (a) Human-Human and (b) Human-Machine interactions, as well as impacting programming work resulting in (c) biased algorithms and automation pitfalls when left unsupervised.



Carisa Callini. Human Systems Engineering. NASA, August 7 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/content/human-systems-engineering

Carisa Callini. Spaceflight Human Factors. NASA, December 19 2018. https://www.nasa.gov/content/spaceflight-human-factors

Clayton M. Christensen. The Innovator’s Dilemma. Harvard Business Review Press, 1997.

COD Welecomes Astronaut Mark Kelly. Daily Herald, February 13 2019. https://www.dailyherald.com/submitted/20190201/cod-welcomes-astronaut-mark-kelly-feb-17

Geoffrey Moore. Crossing the Chasm. Haper Collins, 1991.

MIT Experts Reflect on Shuttle Tragedy. MIT News, February 3 2003. http://news.mit.edu/2003/shuttle2

Tim Peake. The Astronaut Selection Test Book. Century. London, 2018.

Scott Kelly. Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery. Knopf. New York, 2017.

Scott Kelly. Infinite Wonder. Knopf. New York, 2018.

Steve Young. Astronaut: ‘None of Us is as Dumb as All of Us.’ USA Today – Argus Leader, May 13, 2014. https://www.argusleader.com/story/news/2014/05/13/astronaut-none-us-dumb-us/9068537/

Will Knight.  Biased Algorithms are Everywhere, and No One Seems to Care. MIT Technology Review, July 12 2017. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608248/biased-algorithms-are-everywhere-and-no-one-seems-to-care/


d.SCI: Intersecting Information Design, Dataviz and Cognitive Art

I am joining a discussion on Information Visualization and Interaction Design… and the integral role of Cognitive Art to deliver innovative HCI (Human-Computer-Interfaces.)

Heare are sample projects that I have been involved in. This set showcases: multi-modal user interfaces, metaphorical abstractions, and cognitive models, as well as ergonomic form factors that optimize for extreme ease of use.

d.SCI refers to a methodology that I am working on which purposely intersects design and science. In this particular discussion, human cognition and affect are the topics of interest.

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Nokia @ Service Design Week 2017

Exploring Other Methods. November 7, 4:00 PM Understanding How Design Thinking, Lean and Agile Play within Service Design.

“Since service design serves as the umbrella discipline for delivering service experiences, there are many sub methods to address different types of problems. For example, Design Thinking is helpful on the front end to empathize and identify customer needs where Agile is helpful in software development and digital experience design. This group explores well-known methods and how they play a role in the service design universe.”



I’m back in Chicago and I would first like to thank everyone who joined my session about “Exploring Other Methods” for your participation (full house) and encouraging feedback. I hope to cross paths again in the near future. In the meantime, we can take advantage of LinkedIn to stay in touch. I would also like to express my gratitude to Michael DeJager and Tyler Peterson for all of their tireless help.

Here are the links for a couple of the items that I briefly discussed when providing context for Exploring Other Methods: a photo album of where I work, Nokia’s Chicago Technology Center, and the first version of the Human Factors Engineering Manifesto. Regarding requests about the slideware for my talk… I ran an interactive whiteboarding session with my iPad connected to the projector and I did not produce formal slides.

The discussion’s narrative was centered on how to best approach HSM, Human-Machine-Systems, to craft a compelling Service Experience. In that context, “Human” refers to relevant stakeholders and “Machine” to any technology involved. The “Systems” approach prompts a holistic undertaking which includes Front Stage, Back Stage factors and the continuum across the too.

Service Design is about innovation, whether capability-wise that qualifies as incremental, breakthrough and/or disruptive innovation. Today’s Service Design also entails a wide range of low and high-tech at any point in the process. While this is just anecdotal evidence, when I asked everyone about who can do away without any technology, there was an implicit understanding of the rhetorical nature of my question and, therefore, the obvious pervasiveness of digital experiences.

We are a technological society. Good design is concerned with human factors and crafts technological solutions to enable human experiences that contribute to our quality of life and the quality of the work we do. That is Human Factors Engineering (HFE) reason for being, a field pioneered by Nokia Bell Labs in 1947.

From that perspective, it pays to intertwine any relevant practices and tools for the healthy purpose of figuring out what combination works best for any given Service Design project. While process repeatability is a desired outcome, what makes an interdisciplinary team smart is the ability to mix, match and blend what’s needed for each undertaking.

We can think of it as an a-la-carte menu featuring elements from Design Thinking, Agile and Lean methodologies just to name a popular handful to start with. I did not discuss some other such as Concept of Operations, Goal Directed Design or Outcome Driven Innovation, but I do recommend expanding one’s horizons beyond the aforementioned few. Note that while featuring commonalities, each one works with different optics. A holistic approach to Service Design also requires a composite method, leveraging as much (or as little) as needed from any, and with any needed adaptations.

Rather than summarizing what I shared at Service Design Week, I’m taking this chance to further reflect on those insights. So, given that we operate in highly dynamic environments, why wouldn’t designers also apply dynamic methodologies?

I’d like to think twice about cookie-cutter and one-size-fits-all approaches because Service Design typically prompts problems and opportunities where fixed-gear-techniques that might have worked well in the past can end up betraying one’s confidence: they might no longer serve or be the best fit whichever purpose they were originally conceived for. Design typically takes us beyond our comfort level, and that makes it an exciting profession.

Statistically speaking, the more one does the very same thing, the closer one gets to mastering that craft (e.g. deliberate practice model). But, paradoxically, you also get closer and closer to confronting environmental deviations, anomalies and rare events in an ever-changing world with even-growing moving parts and targets (e.g. black swan model). Besides, Service Design practitioners shouldn’t deny themselves the benefits that come with continuous improvement. So, here is a quick recap: innovation in Service Design’s outcomes and method innovation go hand by hand. As Einstein put it:

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

“If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?”