System Usability – Giants, Unicorns, Batman and the Joker

When designing systems, and making products usable, it is important that we see the end from the beginning.The clearer our vision of where we are going, the better we are able to plan the journey.

You need to understand the problem you are trying to solve. A system in itself is not the end, but it is a means to an end, a way to solve a problem.

When we find more efficient systems (more efficient ways of accomplishing tasks), then the old systems become obsolete and irrelevant (Like MySpace did when Facebook showed up).

Let’s take a look at the evolution of transport through the ages…

The first stage of transportation for man was by foot. The next stage did not occur until some smart alec got around to taming animals and figuring out that some of them could actually be ridden and assist with carrying heavy loads. This in turn enabled humans to travel further and complete tasks they would otherwise not have been able to do.

The next important discovery was the wheel. Combining the two concepts vastly improved man’s capability.

With the advent of the motor vehicle, the use of animals as a primary mode of transport eventually became obsolete.

It is a silly analogy, but the point is that it was not a sudden thing that happened, it was an accumulation of knowledge and advancement that had been built over many centuries and had been married in one amazing machine. The discovery of the wheel, fire, steel, the laws of motion, gravity, these all contributed to something never before seen that is now an accepted norm.

That; is the heart of technological advancement. It is a constant refining and leveraging of accumulated knowledge and understanding what is possible. It is discarding what is no longer necessary or cumbersome and improving that which is more efficient.

It is dissecting what has gone before and getting rid of the crud to produce something better, or different, or new.

The better your level of understanding, the more usable your system will be.

You can see better when you stand on the shoulders of giants, but beware of the unicorns

When we speak about system usability; all the tech, the design, and everything that goes into it; is there to perform a task. A successful system accomplishes this task more efficiently than those that went before. Standing on the shoulders of others who have gone before, it solves problems in a way that disrupts the status quo.

While there are definitely giants in the industry that we can lean on to sharpen our understanding, there are also unicorns. Unicorns are mythical creatures we run after to define our processes but at the end of the day we end up chasing the wind. We waste millions in product development and time that could have given us the edge if we were not otherwise occupied.

As far as roles within companies are concerned, I will speak about the unicorn I know the best, and that is the UX Designer, which is what I thought I was doing at some point.

For those who don’t know; UX stands for User Experience. Here is an excerpt from the book Making Meaning:
How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Customer Experiences. (1) By Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff, Darrel Rhea (2005).

Experience design is not driven by a single design discipline. Instead, it requires a cross-discipline perspective that considers multiple aspects of the brand/ business/ environment/ experience from product, packaging and retail environment to the clothing and attitude of employees. Experience design seeks to develop the experience of a product, service, or event along any or all of the following dimensions:

● Duration (Initiation, Immersion, Conclusion, and Continuation)
● Intensity (Reflex, Habit, Engagement)
● Breadth (Products, Services, Brands, Nomenclatures, Channels/Environment/Promotion, and Price)
● Interaction (Passive < > Active < > Interactive)
● Triggers (All Human Senses, Concepts, and Symbols)
● Significance (Meaning, Status, Emotion, Price, and Function)

In short, User Experience Design does not belong to one person. People with that broad spectrum of knowledge across multiple disciplines are few and far between, and when you find a person like that they will probably work alone because everyone is just too incompetent to get what they are saying. These are people like Linus Torvalds, Nicolas Tesla and Leonardo Da Vinci, great visionaries, big loners. 2 of them are long dead, and one is still awesome. You read about them in books, but the chances are slim you will ever meet them, and if you do, they will not work for you, for very long at least.

You get very talented user interface designers who can have a powerful impact on the usability of the system, but at best they can offer an intuitive visual experience and based on solid design principals and a deep understanding of user habits. A good UX team comprises of seasoned Business Analysts, Systems Analysts, System Architects, UI Designers, Backend and Front-End Developers, copy writers and scrum masters, among others, who all work together to optimize the user experience. No one person can take that role.

A better role for user-experience would be a UX Facilitator, someone who can tap into your workforce and steer them in a direction where there is a unified vision. Someone that will keep them on track, that will value their skills, that will make something magical. It is a philosophy that needs to be maintained, not a role that needs to be filled. The chances are you have giants working for you, they just need to be inspired in the right direction.

Job descriptions such as UX Designers and Full stack Developers are not the only unicorns.

A unicorn can be buzzwords and acronyms that, instead of making things easier for us to understand, they obfuscate what we are trying to achieve.

It could be writing endless pages of documentation that take up endless man hours and get read by hardly anyone.

It can be trends in the industry, hyped up software implementations that quickly fade or fizzle away leaving you spending time on tech and development that is no longer relevant. There is a simple rule to avoid running after unicorns; know what you are getting yourself into and don’t do things unless it contributes to the problem you are solving.

Don’t get swept up by the industry buzz, think for yourself. Unicorns may be imaginary creatures, but they will leach you dry and can end up sinking your business.

If you want to be disruptive you need to be a trendsetter, not another sheep in the sea of software companies.

Sustainable is not disruptive

Progress means change. If you want a successful tech stack, then you need to be able to take an honest look in the mirror and do what it takes to offer the best product you can.

We all know the story about ostriches sticking their heads in the ground whenever they smell fear. Fear causes blindness and it will leave you vulnerable.

In The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail (2), Christensen lists two main ideologies that companies operate in:

Sustaining
An innovation that does not significantly affect existing markets. It may be either:

Evolutionary
An innovation that improves a product in an existing market in ways that customers are expecting (e.g., fuel injection for gasoline engines, which displaced carburetors.)

Revolutionary (discontinuous, radical)
An innovation that is unexpected, but nevertheless does not affect existing markets (e.g., the first automobiles in the late 19th century, which were expensive luxury items, and as such very few were sold)

Disruptive
An innovation that creates a new market by providing a different set of values, which ultimately (and unexpectedly) overtakes an existing market (e.g., the lower-priced, affordable Model T Ford, which displaced horse-drawn carriages)

At the speed of innovation today and resources from tech giants such as Google, Apple and Microsoft who are throwing Billions of Dollars at monopolizing the software industry, only being disruptive will allow smaller tech companies to beat them at their own game. If it exists, is efficient, and is widely adopted, then you are too late. You need a better idea. What will make people come to you? How will you inspire your clients?

Make no mistake, software giants are master disruptors, but we have to learn from them and harness the wonderful toys they give us so that we can beat them at their own game. They are the giants; we must be the giant slayers.

I love this quote from Batman when he fights the joker:
Batman: Excuse me. You ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight? [punches Joker
and knocks him against a bell, before grabbing him] I’m going to kill you.
Joker: You… IDIOT!!! You made me, remember? You dropped me into that vat of chemicals.
That wasn’t easy to get over, and don’t think that I didn’t try!
Batman: [smirks] I know you did.
[Batman punches Joker in the stomach and knocks him through a wall. He grabs him and
helps him up only to punch him in the face again. Joker stands up, muttering and clutching his
mouth until he spits out a chattering teeth toy. He retaliates by punching Batman in the
stomach, only to break his fingers on the body armor]
Batman: You killed my parents.
Joker: What? [spits blood on the floor] What are you talking about?
Batman: I made you; you made me first.

I would like to think that we can be like Batman, who grew up as a scared kid in a dark city and became a contender who put dread in those who formerly ruined his city.

Google is not evil(sic), neither is Apple, Microsoft, or any of the others, but if we don’t beat them then they will swallow our future. Currently at Infocare we harness some of Apple’s, Google’s and other tech to drive our own systems, but we are quite aware of who we are and what we want to achieve.

So, what about system usability?
The bottom line is that system usability is a multi-disciplinary pursuit. As such, the system needs to be defined by strong leadership. The success of the system’s usability will be determined by your ability to harness the different experts you have hired and get them to work to a common clearly defined vision.

Most people in the tech industry go forgotten, but everyone knows who Bill Gates is, who Steve Jobs is and who Thomas Edison was. They are disruptive innovators who knew how to harness the magic in others to build something the world has not seen before, and now they will go down the annals of history.

We need to harness in understanding like a net, we must find clarity of vision and purpose. What happens in your company and in the mind of the people that are driving the product, will be reflected in the system that is produced.

Where there is no clarity, any software system will end up being a disjointed Frankenstein.

An insightful leader will impart a clear vision to his capable team, and the systems they produce will turn an industry on its head.

References
(1) Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Customer Experiences.
By Steve Diller, Nathan Shedroff, Darrel Rhea (2005).

(2) The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail.
By M. Christensen (1997).

Martin Hugo
Front-End Web Developer
E: martin.hugo@infocarehealth.com