Usability and the hidden side of system design

DummyIT Systems are tools and tools are used by humans in order to do something. Therefore, tools are always means not objectives. We use a tool because it is more effective and efficient to use it than to use other tools or simply no tools at all (if possible). Rationally thinking, the more usable tools the better the results we get. But is it this so straightforward?. Generally , yes. Although it was a tool-focused analysis. What If we see the problem from the human (human action) point of view?. Humans are driven by incentives, and these incentives are balanced among multiple things such outcome of action, costs and motivation. What happens when tools are more usable? Does a new tool change the set of incentives?

I’ll try to explain it using an example:
Automobiles are tools used by millions to transport themselves. Conventional wisdom tell us that bigger and heavier cars or trucks (like large pick-ups or SUVs) are safer (that is they make better tools for ground transportation). Facts show that it’s false. There are multiple reasons but one of them is behavioural; SVUs drivers are (on average) more aggressive drivers. Thus, the confidence and apparent security of these vehicles make drivers less careful and risky. One of my favourite american economists (David Friedman) has suggested that if we really want to reduce the crashes on our roads and streets we should better attach a hand grenade wired to a collision detector. It’s sounds crazy but, of course, we don’t have empirical data to probe it. On the other hand, the NHTSA statistics shown that safety regulations on safety had not a dramatic impact on car accidents(Regardless the ratios has decreased over the time).

Are information systems different? My point is that they aren’t. So, in absence of regulations imposed by governments, a system designer should take in account not only the usability, ergonomics or friendly interfaces, but also in terms of incentives of target users. The objective of systems (within an organization) is to improve the overall productivity and effectiveness. A simple-to-use system/interface (a for dummies system) could be suitable from a technological point of view but it could make users less productive, careful (as we saw in the SVU example) or omit some relevant control topics. Actully because most users are not dummies, specially those more productive and trained.

StrategIT Tip: When planning, evaluating or designing a system think first in the people and incentives from target users. Tools are only means not ends.

4 Responses to Usability and the hidden side of system design

  1. Peter Field says:

    A common mistake is to undervalue what you already have. If you don’t have a clear view of the quality of your existing information systems then the task of making measurable improvements is much more difficult.

    We have developed an approach at (we term System Governance) that provides a framework and practitioner tools to enable you to assess all of your information systems and help answer key questions such as “which systems really do improve our productivity?”

  2. Luis says:

    I would say the processes and tasks wich “really do improve”. Systems are just tools or parts of the cake.


  3. Peter Field says:

    I think we both agree that processes with poor systems support just don’t ‘stick’.
    If you don’t fully understand the functionality (in use and potential) of the systems supporting your ‘as is’ processes then your technical design for the ‘to be’ processes can either make unsafe assumptions about how your processes will be supported or develop new systems to provide functionality you already have.

  4. Wilco says:

    Hey there

    Thanks for this great post it was just the missing info that i needed for my study

    I have bookmarked your site in the hope that you will bring more of this great stuff to the table


    Wilco Breens

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