Boobs and The Metric System: Assumptions and Mismatched Expectations
On September 23, 1999 at 09:00 the Mars Climate Orbiter’s main engine burners fired. The goal was to change the probe’s trajectory to orbit Mars. At 09:04, communications with the probe was lost. Upon further investigation NASA discovered that the Orbiter had come too close to the upper atmosphere of Mars and disintegrated on contact. The Mars Climate Orbiter was a $125 million project.
What caused this expensive catastrophe?
It was a few innocuous assumptions that lead to mismatched expectations and not-so good results, such as the destruction of the Climate Orbiter.
Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft team that helped develop the Climate Orbiter, programmed navigation commands for the thrusters in English units (such as feet, yards, and miles). The flight team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California used metric units (such as centimetres, meters, and kilometres). The conversion rate between miles and kilometers is about 1.6, meaning that 1 mile is 1.6 kilometres. NASA knew that the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab has worked in metric units since 1990 and that all scientific endeavours usually are calculated using metric units; so they assumed the commands should be in metric units! The Lockheed Martin team knew that the United States uses English units and has been adamant about not changing it so they assumed the commands should be in English units. This resulted in disaster.
I’ll give you another example of how assumptions can lead to mismatched expectations and results. I have done some volunteer work for a Code Like A Girl. We introduce girls to different STEM fields, advocate for women in tech, and connect like-minded individuals who are involved in the industry.
My latest project was a logo.
I had multiple conversations about what the logo should embody with Dinah Davis, the founder of Code Like A Girl. We decided that the logo needed to capture how coding can make you feel like a rockstar while remaining inclusive. After copious amounts of thumbnail sketches I had several options that didn’t focus on slender heterosexual cisgender able-bodied white women or use gender identifiers like long hair, eyelashes, or bows. Sketches consisted of a outline of a girl like you’d find on a bathroom door (there was a sitting one, jumping one, and standing one) along with variations of a code symbol on the figure’s torso.
Dinah reviewed the different options, and I did further investigations and variations on several of them. After a lot of back and forth with Dinah we finally had a polished concept after at least 20 different revisions. Everything was perfect!
Now back to my assumption which went something like “Dinah and my opinion are enough to determine that the logo is perfect.” which allowed me to expect “Everyone else will find nothing wrong with the logo!”
The results? Obviously it wasn’t perfect.
One would think I’d learn to show my work to multiple people before I consider a project complete, especially considering I do it in my professional job all the time! I was just so ready for it to be complete that I didn’t think to show it to others, or at least those who had seen it in progress and understood the story behind it. Dinah thankfully had the foresight to ask the opinion of several trusted individuals about the “final” logo.
My favourite piece of feedback was “It looks like boobs!”
I was..not happy to hear that.
After I put out the proverbial flames of my scorched ego, I sent it to critical individuals that I trust to give honest feedback and asked them “What does this look like to you?” and then followed up with the prompt “Does it look like boobs?” Several didn’t see it, others told me directly that it did, but the best one was someone who told me “Oh yeah, I thought it was supposed to look like boobs because she’s a lady!” despite the fact that usually young girls don’t have boobs.
Suffice to say the boob job had to go and I always make sure to get a second or third opinion about my assumptions. It will lead to more accurate expectations and pleasant results: