Tis the Season for the TSA

Games are processes. Designing processes interests me. Designing a security screening process for airports is similar to designing a game. It just has different design goals.

Looking at complaints against America’s TSA security process reveals some design lessons. First off, a lot of people think the process is stupid. It’s inconvenient and repeatedly misses things. Worst of both worlds, right?

Whenever anything seems obviously stupid in a complex system, I’ve found that’s usually a sign that things aren’t as simple as they seem.

At its core, the TSA has two options. It could provide 100% rigorous screenings which would catch every possible terrorist threat. It absolutely could. You could give everyone background checks, interviews, full body scans and more. So why don’t they do this?

Two obvious reasons, time and money. Even if they had the budget this would make everyone have to wait for weeks to get on a plane. That’s not acceptable.

On the other hand, they could provide no screening. Getting on a flight could be easy as catching a bus. So why don’t they do this? Equally obvious, we want to prevent dangerous threats.

The TSA has to figure out the middle point that fulfils their design goals of reasonable safety while providing the minimum possible inconvenience. Heck, even if they didn’t care about convenience think about what happens if the lines to the screening point get too long. Those lines themselves become terrorist targets.

It’s possible to innovate in the screening process to screen better while also saving time, but this is really hard to do and largely depends on technology and databases that may be outside the TSA’s control.

So if you’re designing the TSA, what point do you aim for? Personally, I’d aim for providing the most rigorous possible screening before the experience and waits become intollerable. That’s the equivalent of a complexity budget here (call it a tolerance budget). The result would be a not-great experience for travelers, but one that’s as safe as we can sustainably make it.

I don’t know about you, but this sounds a lot like the TSA experience we have right now. Specific decisions they make can surely be improved, but overall the fact that traveling is frustrating isn’t a bug right now. It’s a feature.

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