Culture eats technology for breakfast

Have you ever rolled out a new IT system, launched it and then seen it plummet straight to the ground? This is the cruel fate of many IT systems, and afterwards comes the question: “What went wrong?”


September 2016

Better tech doesn’t always win

This is the first truth that we have to acknowledge when designing or introducing a new IT system. IT people LOVE the specs, and as they are experts in the field, they are readily able to “translate” what the newest gadget will make them able to do. The problem is that the general user doesn’t find this attractive – in fact, it doesn’t even compute.

Neurologically, a new IT system is a change that causes strain and stress to our brain. We don’t necessarily get stressed in a negative way, just as stressing our muscles in a gym isn’t necessarily bad, if we eat and rest properly. However, it’s something that requires an extra effort, because it’s always harder to put in that extra work to rewire the brain. Imagine that the understanding of an IT system is like walking through a jungle on already existing paths, instead of having to cut down a new one with a machete. Users would find it tiresome to create a new way of doing the same task within a new technological framework.

That’s what we often hear from people who are responsible for IT when we deliver that point. Although it’s an entirely valid point, the question we should be asking ourselves in this situation is: “Why isn’t that clear to the users?”

The brain is lazy, and it will try to use as much of the existing path as it can. It doesn’t yet see what it can actually achieve with the new technology, and all the words trying to explain this are understood in the language of the old technology.

At first, the brain understands the new task in the context of the old technology. This means that we can have technical logic on our side and formally be “correct”, but time and time again it’s evidenced from observing user behaviour that formal logic isn’t enough to change user behaviour. Users may even claim that the new IT system is worse than what they had before. It’s like moving lianas in a jungle one at a time to create a new path. At first, we move a couple of lianas from the old path to the new. Now both paths are inaccessible. This is the period after go-live in the zone of frustration, where helpdesk gets shouted at, and we typically introduce hypercare, where we try to handle the frustration by being overly attentive and jumping in at the first sign of discontent in order to avoid spreading the negative energy and thereby creating a negative culture around the new technology.

The whole point of introducing new technology is to make people do something new!

Here’s the point: The best technology is the one that is most easily adapted

If there’s one thing we can learn from Apple, it’s this: The best technology is the one that is most understandable to the users. Apple’s communication is multi-modal. They don’t just simplify the logic using words; they also have beautiful visuals, rich and pleasant sounds (not like Microsoft Windows’ error messages) and, most importantly, in all modalities they focus on simplifying communication. If there’s only one button (like on the front of an iPhone), one can’t not know which button to press. There is, however, the design issue of figuring out what that one button is supposed to do in different situations? They make a lot of decisions on behalf of the users, but they base it on an analysis of what most people would want to do – not what they want them to do.

So how do you get this insight?

We suggest that you draw on the SCOT (Social Construction of Technology) framework to analyse “socio-technical coupling”.

Some people get strong reactions when they hear the term “social construction” and tend to think that it’s just about opinions, and that it means that any analysis is as valid as any other. This isn’t the case of SCOT. The best analysis is the most meaningful one; i.e. the one that best accounts for different ways of understanding the technology. What we look for is namely how interpretations of the same technology differ. This is called interpretative flexibility which is a core concept of the SCOT analysis.

Rather than formulating a use case or ideal, we take a step back and look at the cultural environment which the technology should fit into and try to map it out as it is today. Instead of looking at individual stakeholders, we look at the cultural paths of meaning that surround the technology. The product of a SCOT analysis is a map of all the different ways of understanding the technology. Think of it as mapping the collective intelligence; a map of the paths of the collective brain.

Again it’s important to stress that it doesn’t matter whether the interpretation is technically correct. If it exists, it will influence user behaviour, but when we have mapped out these interpretations, we can adapt and make it as easy as possible for the lazy collective brain to change understanding and behaviour – and that is what ultimately matters, if we want to successfully change the socio-technical systems in (path)ways that are easy for the users to follow.

This article was originally written by Jakob Rindum Danelund.