IT Should Be a Toaster

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McDanielCA
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IT Should Be a Toaster

Postby McDanielCA » Tue Dec 16, 2008 11:09 pm

IT Should Be a Toaster was originally posted on the main page of LDS Tech. It was written by Dustin Caldwell.

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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.

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johnshaw
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Toaster Profiles

Postby johnshaw » Wed Dec 17, 2008 6:41 am

The designer of the toaster should allow for programed profiles, that way I only have to tell it once how I like my bagel, white toast, or wheat toast, etc...

As for IT Systems at the Church, I'm sure you're referring to recent developments, and I'm hopeful that this is happening inside the church, for instance the Finance application. However, if MLS was designed like this, it was way off the mark and seems MLS was an end itself (as described in this article). I must fight MLS every time I use it, I always know when I'm using it, and I know when others are using it.

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Postby WelchTC » Wed Dec 17, 2008 8:25 am

jshawut wrote:The designer of the toaster should allow for programed profiles, that way I only have to tell it once how I like my bagel, white toast, or wheat toast, etc...

As for IT Systems at the Church, I'm sure you're referring to recent developments, and I'm hopeful that this is happening inside the church, for instance the Finance application. However, if MLS was designed like this, it was way off the mark and seems MLS was an end itself (as described in this article). I must fight MLS every time I use it, I always know when I'm using it, and I know when others are using it.


We acknowledge that we have a long way to go. The principle is simple, the application is hard.

I loved the analogy of this article. Sometimes we get too fancy for our own (and our customers) good.

Tom

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Postby techgy » Wed Dec 17, 2008 8:34 am

tomw wrote:We acknowledge that we have a long way to go. The principle is simple, the application is hard.

I loved the analogy of this article. Sometimes we get too fancy for our own (and our customers) good.

Tom


I've seen instances where a good program has been "updated" and turned into a bad program. So, I would definitely agree with the analogy given.
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Postby geek » Wed Dec 17, 2008 12:20 pm

Let me caution against the "simplicity for its own sake" mindset. Some problems and scenarios are necessarily complex in real life. And that complexity shouldn't be designed out of the final solution in the name of making it simpler, or because "that complexity is only an issue 5% of the time so we won't worry about it". Solutions should handle real-life situations. Solutions shouldn't introduce unnecessary complexity, but they shouldn't artificially remove complexity from the real-life situations they are modeling.

MLS and LUWS are two very wonderful solutions that are overly simplistic with a couple of features -- that don't address real-world scenarios (contact information and names). In both situations, it seems to me that the data structure was designed around simplicity and "what's likely to happen?".

(I do love MLS and LUWS -- both make management of wards so much easier. Except for phones, emails, and last names.)
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Postby RossEvans » Wed Dec 17, 2008 12:35 pm

As Albert Einstein famously said, "Things should be as simple as possible. But no simpler."

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Simplicity

Postby vibes35-p40 » Wed Dec 17, 2008 2:51 pm

Hello - reading from Geek's post I agree that it is a very complex world we live in and the view of simplifying things should NOT be done for simplicity sake alone.
I do think however that the simplicity that needs to happen is on the user interface or interaction with whatever application it may be.
It can be as complex and algorithim driven on the back end or whatever but as long as the user at whatever level they may be can get accomplished what they are trying to achieve as simply as possible it is a win.
They don't care what runs the system they only want it to work for them.

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Postby garysturn » Wed Dec 17, 2008 3:07 pm

I think the most important lesson to learn is that you should not sacrifice performance just to add the newest and latest fancy things. Two examples:

Windows found out with Vista, that by adding all that eye candy and extra fancy stuff they turned off the business world by slowing performance of the operating system. Look at the problems they are having getting people to adopt it.

Sony and Microsoft upgraded their game systems to include higher graphics and fancy looks and ended up loosing market share to Nintendo who instead added simplicity, speed, and new features with the Wii.

When it isn't broke don't fix it. People don't want an upgrade to give poorer performance, upgrades should add simplicity, speed and improved functions not just state of the art looks. Fancy looking pages impress for minutes, poor performance lasts for the life cycle of the upgrade.

The Church also operates under different requirements than commercial companies, they provide their services worldwide in many areas which do not have state of the art hardware and internet services. Their technology products need to work on many different levels of technology and not just on state of the art equipment. They must also work for people of many different educational levels.
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Postby russellhltn » Fri Dec 19, 2008 3:33 am

Ah, the toaster. To me the all-time classic is the Sunbeam T-20. A functional piece of art. Very simple to use. There's no lever. Just drop your bread in the slot and it's automatically lowered. When done, it's gently raised.

But we're not really talking about toasters, are we? It's all analogy. The toaster works well because it does a small simple job. It hasn't suffered from "scope creep" to "manage the life cycle of bread" by adding breadmaker, slicer, and storage. No one has come along and decided to "leverage it's position on the counter top" or noted that it was "underutilized in the evening hours" and tried to come up with a toaster/popcorn maker. No user focus groups tried to expand it's role to other cooking tasks.

It's simple because the underlying need is simple.

If only we can be so lucky. I've seen users try to expand a document management system to become a line-of-business application. All too often in business we find a complex set of rules and an incredible complexity of exceptions. Over time procedures tend to become more complex. Usually because of some new requirement or need. Occasionally it's because a big mistake has been made and a band-aid is placed on existing procedure to prevent that error from ever happening again.

There's also no guarantee that the managers you've worked with know all the rules of the system they supervise. It may not be written down, being passed on from employee to employee. I worry about the training phase when some clerk will raise their hand and ask "what about..." and then mention something that was never brought up before.

Adding to that challenge is the fast that processes that work well with paper and physical objects may not be the most efficient when computerizing the system.

In order to create software that's as easy to use as a toaster, we must define a need that's can be simply explained.
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