If technology isn’t the problem, it’s probably not the solution

John David Back
Jul 5, 2019 · 4 min read
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Whack! Nails by Adam Rosenberg

I spent at least ten years being a hammer. Every day I’d wake up and I’d look for nails that I could sending speeding home with a solid whack! Any and every problem I came across always required (coincidentally) the same tool. How lucky I was to be me: The Hammer! Nails everywhere!

Looking back now at the results of my incessant and narcissistic hammering on everything, I see a bunch of things badly built. Where I should have sawed, I hammered. Where I should have used caulk or even duct tape — I hammered. Hell, I went into other people’s projects and hammered, just because I could. I wasn’t even always invited.

I am a web developer by trade, and for I long time I approached every problem with a technologist’s mindset. I grew up as a developer in the 2004-onward years. (jQuery stand up!) There were big problems being solved with creative technology all the time, surely small ones could be solved the same way. Every sales pitch and whiteboarding session was a means to a technological ends. I knew I was going to build a website or web application of some kind.

Answer: Website! Wait, what was the question?

I started to change my tune in my mid-to-late 20’s when I read an interesting (possibly apocryphal) story about a developer who tried to sell a scheduling tool to his barber. He saw that the man had to stop cutting hair, pick up the phone, walk to his calendar, find a time, jot it down, say goodbye, and hang up. Wouldn’t it be so much simpler if the customers could just go online, find a time, and schedule? Then the man could check his computer each morning for his bookings and be content.

It would all be so much more efficient that way, the developer thought.

The barber hated the idea, and he was right. First, answering the phone gave him an immediate and personal connection with his clients — some of whom he’d served for years. Secondly, a calendar is $5 and a pencil is 5 cents. A fully featured website could be thousands of dollars — several hundred years worth of calendars. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, there was nothing wrong with the current system.

When we build efficiencies for a living, we trying to think of everything in those terms. For the most part, at work, it serves us well. Simple software is better than complicated software. Simpler interfaces are better than complicated interfaces. Why can’t we apply that same logic to the physical world? Well, because human beings aren’t software systems. They have emotion and attitude and free will. What is easy isn’t always what is preferred. Usually people aren’t measured by how much brainpower a task takes, only that the task is done well.

A rule of thumb I try to follow is that for every two technical answers to a consumer problem, try to find one non-technical. This makes me stop and think about the way a human being is physically using something. Even if it’s as far-fetched and foolish as “instead of sending a selfie, they mail us a photograph.” That at least gets me thinking about the value proposition or new value propositions — could we build a better business model with physical photographs? Could we make art or catalogs or secure storage?

A practical example could be something like this. Consumers love a personal touch when shopping. It would be easy to update shipping software in the warehouse to, alongside a shipping label, print out a nice card from the team to be placed in each box. You’d thank them for their business and put all your names on it. Your customers will get their packages, open it up, and see a card from the team. How wonderful!

Except it’s not wonderful, it’s monotonous.

A better solution would be buy a box of cards that say Thanks!, and leave it in the break room. Ask your people to spend time each day signing them when they need a break or are in between tasks. Put those into the shipments, ink-smears and all. Marketing today, in lieu of vanishing brand loyalty, depends on connection with customers. People want to know you aren’t faceless automatons. And because you aren’t, you shouldn’t act that way.

At the risk of continuing my bad home improvement pun, remember the saying: measure twice, cut once. In fact, you might not even need to cut. There may be a creative way to approach your problem that doesn’t involve a new system, a new layer of complexity, a new “thing” to maintain.

And, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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