When we design and write systems for our customers, do we look toward helping them accomplish their work, without getting in the way? We need to look critically at our systems to decide if they are too feature-laden and whether they just get the job done. There are many things that we use every day that we don’t notice because they completely blend into the actual task we are performing.
Several years ago, our toaster stopped working. My wife shopped around a bit, looking for a 4-slice toaster that could also handle bagels. That was about it for our requirements. Wow, what a selection was available! She finally got a model that had a digital readout on the front, and several buttons. The first morning I tried to use it, it burned the toast. I've burned toast before, so I knew how to fix this problem - reduce the toasting time. Usually there is a little slider that I can adjust down. On this model, I push the 'lighter' button a couple times, and a couple of the LEDs turn off on the 'darkness meter'. Cool. I watched the toast carefully, because I didn't want to burn it again. When it looked like it was done, I tried to push the toaster lever up, but it wouldn't move. I panicked until I saw the 'cancel' button, which caused the toast to pop up. However, it also reset the 'darkness meter'. Over the next few days, I found that I needed to double-check the darkness meter every time I toast, unless I was feeling lucky. I wasn't that impressed with the toaster, but it would have been more trouble to return it, and hey, it's just a toaster.
Now I am an expert with this toaster. I can do bagels, I can control which heating elements come on or off, I know all the lights and buttons, and I can get great toast every time - if I pay attention and don't set the toaster incorrectly. If it burns, I know it is due to user error, and I can debug the problem very quickly.
However, all I really need is toast. If the toaster had a slider to adjust the toasting time, I would be done. Perhaps my life would be less fulfilled because I didn't have the opportunity to learn the user interface for a digital toaster. I don't think so.
Wouldn't it be great if our customers didn't even know they were using our systems? Imagine the following scenario: I approach a customer several months after a software release, to ask him how the system is working. He looks at me, a bit puzzled, then smiles as he realizes what I’m talking about. He then explains that his team has been getting work done so efficiently with the system that he had forgotten it even existed.
Here at the Church, IT and systems are a means to an end, not the end itself.
Dustin Caldwell is a technical program manager for the Church.