December 14, 2010

Design Thinking and the Full-Body Scan

TSA Security Checkpoint

When I heard that airports were installing full-body scanners that gave TSA workers x-ray vision through clothing, my first thought was, “No one will possibly put up with this.” Then I learned that if a traveler decides not to be subjected to this inspection, they can choose to be subjected to an “enhanced pat-down.” As Tom Keane points out in his recent editorial the Boston Globe, this kind of “unreasonable search“ without “probable cause” is not only demeaning but also in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution.

As a citizen I’m troubled by this procedure, but as a designer I see a huge opportunity. Following up on my previous post about the meaning of “design thinking,” I visited Michael Hendrix at the Boston office of IDEO, and after a tour and a beer, he sent me off with a copy of Tim Brown’s book Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. Brown makes the case that the design process and the qualities that define design thinking – empathy, integrative thinking, optimism, experimentalism and collaboration – can be transformative in ways that go beyond the aesthetics of objects. Brown’s key insight is that what designers are really designing is not objects or spaces, but experiences, and that design is practiced most productively when these experiences are fully integrated into the process. In his book he describes case studies from IDEO’s practice, showing how designers, working in collaboration with anthropologists, researchers, business people, scientists and other people with appropriate skills and knowledge, employed design thinking to improve the emergency room experience for patients, the delivery of water to remote villages in Third World countries, the laboratories of scientists, the instruments and operating rooms of surgeons, and the innovation process for companies. The key skill involved in all these projects is the ability to integrate the experiences of the people engaged with products or services into the design solution.

Based on the outrage that the full-body scanners have provoked, I thought it unlikely that TSA applied design thinking to consider the experiences and attitudes of the air traveler before they implemented this procedure. We can imagine the linear reasoning path: “We need to keep terrorists off airplanes. If I subject every passenger to a full-body scan or a pat-down, the likelihood of a terrorist getting onto a plane is vanishingly small. Therefore, etc.” The focus on detecting objects is obviously a response to previous security breaches, from the “Shoe Bomber” to the “Underwear Bomber.” (Perhaps we should be grateful that the TSA is not yet implementing a strategy to foil the “Body Cavity Bomber.”) Unfortunately, in the opinion of many security experts, this whole approach is less effective than some of the more nuanced approaches to airport security, though no process is devoid of problems.

As I was reading through Change by Design, I was surprised to discover that TSA did engage IDEO (Change by Design, pp. 184–188) “to improve the airport security experience.” Brown remarks that, “Our work for the TSA proved to be among the most challenging assignments in IDEO’s thirty-year history.” He then goes on to describe how reconfiguring the space around the checkpoints and creating signage to explain to travelers what to expect only addressed the most superficial aspects of the problem. The main point of the case study is a description of how IDEO worked with TSA to improve the training and mindset of the TSA employees on the front lines to give them more flexibility and authority in dealing with specific situations.

While this is a powerful story of how design can go beyond the brief to implement positive change, the solution still skirts the real problem: Why are we subjecting so many patently innocent people to a procedure that is expensive, humiliating, unconstitutional – and arguably doesn’t achieve the goal of protecting innocent people from clever, determined terrorists? There are still plenty of opportunities for design thinking.

I don’t mean to minimize the genuine threat that terrorist acts pose to a free society, nor the enormity of the challenge to those charged with protecting our citizens from harm. I only hope that the TSA will acknowledge that a line has been crossed, and that design thinking can be deployed effectively to explore options that are both more effective in identifying likely terrorists and more respectful to our rights as citizens. As Sen. John Kerry stated in a recent article in the Boston Globe, “I refuse to accept the notion that we can’t keep people safe without undermining our civil liberties . . . It’s not an either/or choice.’’

Photo: TSA Security Checkpoint a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike photo from BillyPalooza


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