The Tolstoy Principle in Action

This is what failure looks like: 50% one-star reviews. The other half is five-star reviews. Assuming these are not all from the app developers themselves, the app apparently can work. It just didn’t work for me, nor for many others.

I call this the Tolstoy principle: All successful apps are alike; each unsuccessful app is unsuccessful in its own way. The end-user does not care that 98% of your back-end infrastructure is running. They care that they can complete their task. And if one critical component fails, your app is a failure. Like this one from my local supermarket chain.

When you build systems, is all the attention lavished on a cool front-end app? Unsexy back-end services are equally important.

Improve Internal IT

If you think it hard to retain IT talent, spare a thought for the leader of customer service. 83% of customer service agents feel overworked and 62% consider quitting. IT cannot give them a pay rise or remove obnoxious customers, but we can give them useful IT systems.

28% of customer service workers agree completely or somewhat that their IT systems help them do their job. That leaves 7 out of 10 who feel their IT is working against them. When was the last time you sent an expedition out into the trenches of your organization to find out what was bothering your users the most? Sometimes, there are little things that IT can easily do to dramatically improve the effectiveness of internal IT.

Fancy or Usable?

Do you want something that works or something that looks fancy? Sometimes, these two objectives come into conflict. Too often, the IT professionals can’t imagine a solution that does not involve touchscreens and mobile apps.

I’m staying in an upscale hotel in New York this week, and the control panel for heating and lighting is definitely old-school. But it works. And it can be understood and operated by every age group likely to frequent the hotel.

Meanwhile, back in Denmark, we are currently rolling out a new central authentication system. You will have to figure it out in order to do online banking or access public services. It was designed by tech-savvy young people and is very fancy. Too bad it has left hundreds of thousands of non-computer-literate citizens desperately calling the understaffed phone helpline.

Are you sure the solutions you roll out have been tested by the entire target audience?

User Blaming

The IT industry has its own version of victim blaming. I call it user blaming. That is what happens when you build an IT system without proper regard for the users’ reality. When the purported benefits do not materialize, the vendor points to the convoluted and impractical instructions given and claims that if only the users would follow the instructions, the system would work as advertised.

I was reminded of user blaming this weekend. I had worn out the burrs on my coffee grinder, and as is sadly often the case, a replacement part was more expensive than a new machine. Being a professional, I always read the instructions. They told me to clean the machine after each use. Since I only grind what I need, that would mean several cleanings a day. And the cleaning involved six steps, washing everything in lukewarm water, emptying out the beans, disassembling the grinder, cleaning the burrs with the supplied cleaning brush, and much more.

That is an abdication of responsibility. Just like when an IT vendor provides unrealistic and impossible-to-follow CYA instructions. Take responsibility. Build a quality product that works in real life.

Google Just Challenged You

Google just challenged your IT organization. They created a free version of their Workspace plan where users get collaboration spaces, chat, video conferencing, and the usual Google programs Sheets, Slides, and Docs.

This dramatically increases the risk that people in your organization will create a free Google Workspace Essentials account and run their projects from there. That means all your data is under the control of Google instead of you. If the person who set up the Workspace forgets to appoint another administrator and leaves the company, your data is stuck on Google servers with no option to apply the corporate data governance.

To face this challenge, you need a stick and a carrot. The stick is an official policy prohibiting unauthorized collaboration spaces on third-party servers. The carrot is officially approved collaboration software with great usability. It’s easy to create the stick, but it doesn’t work without the carrot. Do you have the carrot?

User Experience Disasters

This week’s episode of my podcast Beneficial Intelligence is about User Experience disasters. Danes consistently rank among the happiest people in the world, but I can tell you for sure that it is not the public sector IT we use that makes us happy. We have a very expensive welfare state financed with very high taxes, but all that money does not buy us a good user experience.

Good User Experience (UX) is not expensive, but it does require that you can put yourself in the user’s place and that you talk to users. That is a separate IT specialty, and many teams try to do without it. It doesn’t end well. Systems with bad UX do not deliver the expected business value, and sometimes are not used at all. A system that is functionally OK but that the users can’t or won’t use is known as a user experience disaster.

We have a web application for booking coronavirus testing here in Denmark. First you choose a site, then you chose a data, and then you are told there are no times available at that site on that date. If a UX professional had been involved, the site would simply show the first available time at all the testing centers near you. We now also have a coronavirus vaccination booking site. It is just as bad.

As CIO or CTO, some of the systems you are responsible for offer the users a bad experience. To find these, look at usage statistics. If you are not gathering usage, you need to start doing so. If systems are under-utilized, the cause is most often a UX issue. Sometimes it is easy to fix. Sometimes it is hard to fix. But IT systems that are not used provide zero business value.

Listen here or find “Beneficial Intelligence” wherever you get your podcasts.