30 Oct If my mom designed a computer
If my mom designed a computer, it would say please and thank you. It would know when I was really focused on something and wouldn’t bug me with e-mail, IM and other notifications. It would know just when to call me back from that Internet playground, so I could be sure and finish my homework and chores, ah, work for the day. It would wake up before I do and be ready for the day and have my day organized when I logged on. When the applications began to squabble about who was most important, it would patiently remind everyone that there’s only one of me and they’d better just work out their differences on their own. Though my mom’s well into her senior years, she’s still bright and spry so if anybody in design land wants to hire her, let me know ‘cause I want to buy the computer environment she’d design.
Did you notice that little shift from the beginning to the end of the previous paragraph? Mom went from working on a computer to working on a computer environment. It’s not so much the computer or even any single application that I’m so interested in. It’s the whole environment, the gestalt (go look it up, it’s German) of my computer. You may recall my first law of software – any mildly successful application begins to operate under the delusion that it is the operating system. The result has been a kind of tower of babble brought right onto my computer.
It would seem the bar of “mildly successful” has been lowered to “compiled successfully at least once.” I was looking at a FAX program the other day that wanted to have its monitor window visible at all times, an icon installed on the tool bar and a short cut on the desktop just in case I managed to zone out the other two. In addition to all these launch points, it wanted to take over the “My Documents” folder and organize it more conveniently for FAX management. All this so I can send about one fax every quarter or so. I can’t really blame the poor little application, though. Pennsylvania school boards not withstanding, there’s a bloody Darwinian battle going on in my computer for my attention. It’s survival of the most arrogant.
I’m not trying to alert each and every business analyst, architect, designer and software engineer to pursue that last little increment of flagrant alarmism that will reverse the entropy of attention. In practice, every such attempt only increases the rate of attention dispersal rather than decreasing it.
That not-so-simple truth is at the root of an Information Technology conundrum. You can do all the business aligning and requirements gathering, user-centered designing and extreme programming you want to, and your business partners are still going to think you’re the beast incarnate if you don’t understand what it’s like to live in their world. I’m not talking about their world as arranged for the convenience of your application. I’m talking about their world as it is, was and will be long after your application or information services have flitted in and out of their attention span.
A strict focus on getting your application or information service the attention it so richly deserves at the desktop will always fail. Working to understand the attention marketplace of your customers is the only way. Economists have recently realized that “Homo Economis,” or Economic Man, going through the daily decision making process isn’t quite the rational, perfectly informed, wholly self-interested engine they once imagined. The same is true for Employo Attentis, the Attentive Employee. What ever the mavens of business analysis, market research, good design, and strategic planning (and I’m one of them) might wish, that knowledge worker, machinist, records manager, or executive isn’t perfectly focused on or informed about the decision of the moment.
Rather than assuming we can constrain environment and attention for the convenience of our information services, we need to experiment with a more organic model. No matter what our intentions and designs, our systems and services will be put to work in unexpected ways and in widely varying ever-changing contexts. This isn’t just the now-common cry for flexibility and agility in IS. It’s about understanding that technology can’t help but impact the business environment and culture. Then we have to find ways to nurture the positive impacts and mitigate the negative ones.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.