Putting Computers In Their Place

October 13, 2009

This was written in 2002.  I’m amazed to find how relevant it is today — even with all the changes that have taken place.

I help design computer systems for business applications, and so you might expect me to extol the virtues of computer systems in this column.  But — quite the contrary — I offer here my observations on the overuse of computers, on the danger of excessive reliance on this technology, and on the need for creative vision.

To many of my clients, and would be clients, I am, of course, a priest of this technology.  Clients bow to me, expecting that my knowledge of computer technology uniquely qualifies me to design a role for computers in their organizations.  I remember one client in Holland begging me for a “great purchasing system” to compliment the scheduling tool I had given his organization.  But when I asked him what problems this system should solve, he was mute.  He could not tell me whether the critical problem was vendor selection, quality control, scheduling full truck loads, lead time, or what.  And yet, without me, he was running the purchasing department, and must have been sensitive to such issues and knowledgeable about which were in control and which were not.

When I learned how to ski, the first thing we were taught was how to fall down.  Equipped with this knowledge, we would never need to be out of control (and dangerous) because we knew how to stop.  I teach my clients that turning the computer OFF is the first thing they need to learn in the world of technology.  And knowing that they can turn it off, they can use the computer, and other technology, sensibly and responsibly.

Why turn the computer off?  Because the computer usually narrows our vision, and some problems need to be approached with the most creativity possible.  I recall one client, a magazine publisher, whose magazine was going bankrupt.  He proudly told me that his new spreadsheet model could account for every fifteen minutes of lost time in the secretarial pool, could track every account with incredible accuracy, etc.  What his model couldn’t do was suggest whether his magazine’s articles were attracting the wrong readership, whether his marketing strategy was appropriate, etc.

A spreadsheet can be a great way to set up a model, to track actual behavior in terms of that model, and to make projections.  But it doesn’t let you ask such questions as, “What does the model leave out?”  Viewing the world through a spreadsheet is viewing the world with blinders on.  Sometimes we have to take those blinders off.The great physicist Enrico Fermi is said to have remarked that, “Any calculation of importance can be done on the back of an envelope — and so I always carry an envelope in case I’m called upon to perform a calculation of importance”.  Of course, his lesson applies to the business world as well.  Most theories need to first be tested with simple calculations and with an open mind.  More detailed analysis, perhaps with computer help, can follow.

Of course not all computer applications are modeling and predicting.  Some are just keeping track of current data — entering orders, or insurance policies, or clinic schedules, or whatever.  Here the utility of the computer is undeniable — but so is the possibility of blind abuse.  Every time I hear another consultant talk about end-users as “techno-peasants”, I know that the really important people are not getting listened to.

Working with end users is not always easy.  It takes patience.  They may not speak a technological language, may not have clear visions for how their technology should appear.  But, in my experience, they know a lot about their world of work, they have a lot of experience struggling to keep track of data and make lots of important, if little, decisions, and, perhaps most important, that know what isn’t working well today.  I’d like to have them on my side, as advisors, as consultants, as allies.

In teaching classes on user centered design, the first topic I emphasize is listening.  True listening is not waiting for a lull in which to get in a word, or for a logical flaw which one can set straight.  It is really seeking the meaning or experience that was being shared.  Usually, the most helpful response is a tentative restatement of what was just heard — to see if it is really what was intended.  Thus we have an iterative process of speaking, feedback, correction, and more listening.  In this process, users know that they are being taken seriously.

I also emphasize the need to create real experiences, rather than just to talk about formal specifications or the like.  Even the simplest paper mock-up of a new system will evoke real user reactions — if they are permitted and encouraged.  Users who would quickly sign off on a design document will seriously role play the use of a new system, and will give impassioned responses if the data or options they need are not present on the screen they are now viewing!

Computers aren’t all that easy!  Despite all the talk about “user friendliness” and such, I regularly experience computer systems to be frustrating, illogical, maddening, and erratic.  While my training teaches me to cope with all these things, my experience first notes that they are real.  User complaints or comments are usually based on a real experience, and are usually a pointer towards helpful improvements.  Too often, however, they are dismissed simply as evidence of the need for more training.

So … turn off your computers for a few minutes.  Stop reading even the most important e-mail, take off your glasses and stop concentrating on the oversized spreadsheet.  Ask yourself what big questions need to be addressed, and whether the technologies you are embracing are helping you in that endeavor.  Listen to those around you, and see how they regard their computer systems.  Then turn everything back on again — knowing that you’re in control.

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One Response to “Putting Computers In Their Place”

  1. My brother would fall in love this website. We were not too long ago discussing about this.

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