Inmates are still running the asylum | DMA

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Inmates are still running the asylum

It’s the 21st century and most of us carry in our pockets processing power millions of times bigger than the one that landed people on the moon (32Kb was the memory in the lunar module’s computer…)

We would expect simplicity and automation now. ‘Polite’ machines that think and do the work on our behalf. Here’s a simple example scenario: you buy a new smartphone, you press one button (OK, maybe two) and all your existing contacts ‘pour’ into the new phone, wirelessly. Easy-peasy.

Not an inconceivable flight of imagination by any standards. That was the scenario my wife faced the other day when she upgraded from her old HTC Desire to the new version of the same phone. Once again: the same model made by the same manufacturer.

But her experience was far from the simplicity expected above. Judge by yourself:

Firstly, her old phone was not giving any confirmation that her contacts have been saved either on the SIM or the mini-SD memory card. So she had to assume it.

Her new phone couldn’t recognise the old SIM card; her old phone couldn’t recognise the new SIM card. Her new phone could also not find any contacts on the mini-SD card, when inserted.

There was no option to connect the two phones directly and transfer the data – or at least that option wasn’t visible in either manual. People in the store she got the phone from said she needs to go to a particular store of theirs, as there are only a few, with a special machine that does those transfers!

So we googled the problem and found out we have to use HTC Sync software to be able to do the transfer. There was a link there to their website’s Support section. A good sign.

Surprise: many HTC phones there, but seemingly in the order of their chronological appearance – instead of grouping model variants together (e.g. Desire, Desire X, Desire C etc.) we had to scroll through many panels of a carousel showing many other variants to find the old-model Desire. Even the drop-down menu placed there as an alternative to the carousel used the same grouping system!

Then the letdown: the page stated HTC Sync for this model only works on Windows PCs. No mention of Macs, which are our home computers. We googled it again, for Sync for Macs. Got a link to a 3rd party software. Installed it. Finally did the job so that new phone could start getting its proper use, as without contacts in it, it was just a very dumb phone indeed.

The summary: 45 lost minutes and big aggravation with the mind-boggling complexity of resolving a seemingly simple and logical need. And something more than that: anger at the disrespect of us as customers, as it was obvious that very little thought went into what real-life scenarios people who use that particular manufacturer brand may face.

So, to go back to the opening of this post: how is this still possible? Why, at this day and age, very obvious, logical and expected user scenarios – the ‘hygiene tasks’, if you like – still get neglected and why we still buy things instead of experiences (unless one buys an Apple product – and, trust me, I have my issues with them as well)?

One answer may come from one of the fathers of disciplines known as ‘user experience’ and ‘information architecture’, Alan Cooper. In his seminal book, ‘The Inmates are Running the Asylum’, he explained in illuminating detail the ‘engineering’ mindset that powers many of the world’s software and hardware manufacturers. The ‘inmates’ are the coders and hardware production bods.

They, simply, think features, not user needs. They are inner-looking. They may not even like people. They don’t have Jonathan Ive.

That is why we had the old ‘PC’ paradigm on mobile phones for so long; that is why everyone was ambushed by Apple’s iOS; that is why they still can’t get it and compete on an ever broader set of increasingly irrelevant features. But try moving your contacts from your old to your new phone, even if it’s the same model…

That is why our phones are still ‘smart’ despite themselves. And why we are still waiting for our ‘year of the mobile’…

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