Jana Sedivy is Founder and Principal of Authentic Insight, an award winning consulting practice specializing in Voice of Customer research and strategy for B2B tech companies. She is a recognized expert in Customer Experience research.
Classic movies are a wondrous window into a bygone era. They ordered beer at drive throughs, smoked in the office, and didn’t dial phone numbers.
When someone wanted to reach Elizabeth Taylor, “The most desirable woman in town” they had only to ask the operator for “Butterfield 8”.
As more and more phone numbers were created, those numbers got more complicated. Lucy and Ricky Ricardo could be reached at “Murray Hill 5-9975”, which is a bit more of a mouthful.
Eventually, people came to the conclusion that this system was not going to scale very well so Bell decided to introduce the future of telephony with “All-Number Calling”. No names. Just digits.
Enter the “Anti Digit Dialing League” which fought a short-lived and unsuccessful struggle against the horrors of this “creeping numeralism”.
In their manifesto “Phones are for People” they argued
“Engineers have a terrible intellectual weakness. ‘If it fits the machine,’ they say, ‘then it ought to fit people.‘ This is something that bothers me very much: absentmindedness about people.”
They advocated small forms of civil protest:
“Interpreting the area code and seven digits as one huge number, they place calls by saying, “Operator, give me S.I. Hayakawa at four billion, one hundred fifty-five million, eight hundred forty-two thousand, three hundred and one.” Growls Chapter Leader Frederick Litto, “If they want digits, we’ll give them digits.”
Well,they lost that fight, but only temporarily as it turns out.
Fifty years later, not many people remember the actual digits they need to phone a friend. Instead, they store contact information in their cell phone, or simply ask Google, Siri, or Alexa to dial it for them.
Phones it seems, are indeed for people.
The early days of the internet evolved in the opposite direction. When I first started using the internet in the 90’s, we had to type in actual 12 digit IP addresses, like an animal (or like a machine?). Pretty quickly though, domain names were invented and now, you can just visit authenticInsight.com rather than remembering the IP address (22.214.171.124 if you’re interested).
These seem like obvious evolutions today but they weren’t at the time. Like most good design, it looks like “common sense” once someone has thought of it.
I encounter this issue in many of the products that I work on. The mentality in many organizations is, to quote the Anti-Digit folks: “If it fits the machine, then it ought to fit people”. This is especially true in engineering driven organizations, which pretty much describes most tech companies.
In one project, we were advising our client on the user experience design of a very complex product. One of the engineers explained their current approach: “If it’s coming from the database we display it as a dropdown list, and if it’s dynamically created, we display it as checkboxes.”
“If it fits the machine, then it ought to fit people”
This type of approach is guaranteed to create UIs that are difficult to use, confusing, and disorienting. I wish I could say that this was an unusual exception, but it isn’t.
The right approach is to think about the human and the task they are trying to accomplish first.
Rather than having the database determine whether users are seeing checkboxes or dropdowns, work the other way around. First decide which one is the best choice for a particular activity and only then decide on the data model that will support it.
To be clear, I’m not laying this problem on the shoulders of engineers. Developing complex systems is really hard, and keeping track of all the intricate interdependencies can be daunting.
What is often overlooked however, is that human interactions also have many intricate interdependencies. When you expect your engineers to keep track of both the technical intricacies and the human ones, you are quite simply, expecting the impossible.
This kind of problem is a symptom which reflects how much the organization values the customer.
Here is a good sanity check for your organization
How often do you let your engineers talk to actual customers, or at least observe conversations with them? Hint: if it’s “never”, your customers can tell. Your product shows it.
How many people working on the product are devoted 100% to thinking about the human interactions and not writing any code? Hint: if it’s “Zero”, your customers can tell. Trust me.
What did you design first, the data/event model, or the user interactions? Hint: well… you know where I’m going with this.
Here is the bottom line. Until the robot revolution overthrows us, your product is going to be used by humans. Shouldn’t you spend at least as much time thinking about the humans, as you do the machines?
Anuj Anand is the VP for Technology Services and Solutions at Ausenco, a global leader in providing consulting, engineering, project delivery and optimisation services for large scale, resources, energy and industrial projects. If a mine needs to be built, or a recycling plant designed, or a bridge constructed, Ausenco is brought in to provide expertise in design, engineering, project delivery and commissioning.
Anuj is responsible for ensuring that Ausenco’s people have the best technical tools available so that they can stay cutting edge and serve their clients efficiently and effectively.
Anuj took some time to talk with me about how he manages to stay innovative in a very traditional industry
1) Change is hard. You need to be willing to put in the effort to work through resistance
In an established industry like engineering, many organizations have entrenched ways of doing things. This can make innovation a real challenge. Anuj says that driving the change management to adopt a new technology or process can feel like a tough slog, but there is just no shortcut to it. “You need to take people on the journey with you and prove to them that it works.”
“When I started as an engineer, the design process was still largely a 2D procedure that used lots of detailed blueprints. I was an advocate for using 3D modelling tools but there was a great deal of resistance to that because people didn’t want to change their process. We got there – but it took us 5 years to make the transition from 2D drawings to 3D models.”
Anuj also emphasises that respecting cultural differences is often overlooked but is critical in global organizations. “We are a global company with offices in Australia, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Canada, the USA and the Pacific Islands. Each office has their own unique culture. Some are more accepting of mandates that come from the hierarchy, some will get into heated debates and question everything. You need to respect their cultural context and engage with them in a way that works for them.” Sometimes that means it takes longer and it’s harder he acknowledges.
“When I get frustrated, I remind myself, to make great things, you need to put in the hard work.”
2) Successful technology isn’t just about technology, it’s about understanding the business needs and building the relationships to effect change
When people think of an internal IT department, they often think that they are just plugging in computers and updating everyone’s Windows machines. But Anuj’s team knows that they can add a lot more value by understanding the functional business problems. But knowing you can add value is only half the battle. Other people need to know it too.
That’s where developing relationships is critical.
“From early on, we’ve proactively inserted ourselves into discussions where we know we can make an impact. We participate in the Leadership meetings and meet regularly with the Presidents of the different business lines. It’s very unusual for an internal IT group to be involved in those conversations, but it’s the secret to our success.”
“When we understand the priorities and functional business needs of each part of the business, we can make sure that we can allocate the budget and resources in the way that will serve them best.” Anuj points out that the best way to build trust, is by helping the business line be successful. As you build trust, the more likely they are to come to us early on in their problem discussions. Having a proven track record of successes and savings obviously helps too.
3) To stay ahead, you need to be constantly innovating
Like most people who are paying attention, Anuj is painfully aware of how quickly technology is changing. “Here’s what keeps me up at night. If we aren’t always thinking about how engineering will be done in 2020 and beyond, we’ll be left behind. When you are in a very mature, risk averse industry like ours, there can be a temptation to be complacent.”
These days, Anuj spends a lot of time looking forward at technology trends “so that we can be better, faster, stronger. And do it first.” “We need to be able to continue to provide cutting edge service to our clients, and that won’t happen by continuing to do the same thing.”
Thanks for letting us take a peek under the hood Anuj!
Ausenco is a global company providing consulting, engineering, project delivery and asset management and optimisation solutions for the minerals & metals, oil & gas and industrial sectors. They provide services across the full project lifecycle from preliminary feasibility studies to the construction of multi-billion dollar projects and ongoing management, maintenance and optimisation.