Thursday, July 24, 2003

Technology is your friend, technology is your friend, technology is your friend...

Computer systems used to be like toolboxes. You could select the tool you needed at that moment to accomplish the task as hand. Of course, this meant that you had to have an idea of what was necessary.

More and more, the trend is to ‘idiot-proof’ computer systems. The classic example is the cash register that tells the cashier how much change to give back. The extreme of this is the register that dispenses the coin change automatically, so all the clerk has to do is count out paper money. The concept is that the computer system should lead the user by the hand – first we do this, and then this, next comes this, and so on. Anybody can operate the system with minimal training.

The problem with any ‘idiot-proof’ system is that this isn’t a perfect world. Problems happen – frequently – and the user-friendly computer systems of today are not good at dealing with anything outside the norm. Options and alternatives have to be anticipated and programmed for, and that’s work and complexity, driving up the cost and requiring the user to think. And nobody ever anticipates everything that can happen.

Some systems don’t even try. Last night, my wife and I made a purchase at Best Buy. The register rang up more than the items should have cost. In this case, the Best Buy solution is to pay the incorrect amount, and then go stand in another line at ‘Customer Service’ (hah!) for a refund of the difference. There is no alternative to a perfect transaction, all ‘corrections’ have to take place at Customer Service.

I finally intervened because my wife was royally pissed off and chewing out the clerk. It wasn’t the kids fault, he didn’t have any choice in the matter either. I wonder how often they have to stand there and deal with frustrated customers because of a poor corporate policy?

The same situation is taking place at the place where I work. A venerable (translation: old but workable) computer system is being replaced by a modern new version. There’s going to be trouble. The new system is supposed to take you step by step through the process. Utopia! The only new problem is that there is no ‘standard’ transaction in our business. Everything works by exception, and the users have to think each and every process through because of the myriad variables. None of these variables will be accounted for, because the new system eliminates the need for them. Uh huh. Sure.

Imagine a carpenter opening his toolbox and reaching in for a hammer. Oops, not allowed! You have to measure first, then cut, and then plane, and only then can you hammer. Which makes perfect sense, until it’s the wrong thing to do for the situation you’re in.

Don’t rely on experience or expertise, because we trust the system. It tells us what to do, and the system is right. Always.