First, the timeline of events (Pacific Standard Time):
8:50pm PwC accountants Brian Cullinan and Martha Ruiz, each with an identical set of envelopes, are positioned at opposite wings in the theater (since they don't know in advance from which side the presenters will enter).
8:51pm Ruiz hands her Best Actress envelope to Leonardo Dicaprio. Cullinan fails to dispose of his duplicate copy.
8:57pm Actress Emma Stone completes her acceptance award and walks offstage. The Oscars go to a commercial break.
8:58pm-9:04pm Timing is unclear, but somewhere in this time Cullinan takes a picture of Emma Stone holding her freshly-awarded Oscar:
9:00pm Cullinan mistakenly hands the Best Actress envelope to Warren Beatty (no doubt believing it was the Best Picture envelope).
9:05pm Cullinan tweets his photo of Emma Stone (his tweet has since been deleted).
1. Inattentional blindness, caused by stress and an increase in cognitive load, decreases our situational awareness. The higher the stress or cognitive load, the narrower our awareness. You can impair your situational awareness by performing even the smallest mental exercise, such as doing mental math or using the voice interface inside a car while driving.
Cullinan, tasked with the already-stressful job of handing out envelopes without error, appears to have taken & tweeted the picture of Emma Stone only moments before Beatty appeared with the wrong card. The simple act of thinking about the tweet you're going to send during the upcoming commercial break, is enough to reduce our situational awareness. It's called inattentional blindness, and here's a video showing how easy it is to experience this cognitive tunneling:
2. Emphasis must match information relevance. This is one of the core guidelines in the Science of Great Design. The more important the information, the greater the emphasis. You can emphasize with size & contrast, among a host of other techniques. Here's the card Beatty and Dunaway saw:
The fix is to apply the emphasis must match information relevance guideline, and for this card, could look like this:
4. Discoverability helps users understand what to do and where they are. It is important for signposts to be positioned along the path where they are likely to be easily seen. In the case of this particular event, the important signposting that could have prevented this were the words "ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE" printed on the front of the envelope. There are two problems with this signposting. First, it's in a location where it's unlikely to be easily seen. The words are on the front of the envelope, but the backside of the envelope faces you when you open it. Second, the "ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE" words are not easily seen because the text is relatively small, and as we've already seen, of insufficient contrast.
The fix is to increase the text size & the contrast, and to add signposting to both sides of the envelope, like this:
- One person hands out the envelopes. One person tweets photos of the stars.
- Increase the size and contrast of the award category text (e.g., "Best Actress") on the cards.
- Darken the envelopes, brighten the award category text, and use a larger font.
- Print the award category label on both sides of the envelope.
Understanding the relationship between cognitive science and good design is important. It can save money, save time, and might even save you from making embarrassing mistakes.
To learn more about the science behind great design and user interfaces (UI), check out my course, the Science of Great UI, at deviq.com/sgui.