Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

I’m just a bit of software

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Why going to the cinema is so crap these days

In The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, British film critic Mark Kermode bemoans the decline in the multiplex cinema experience. Noisy eaters, people checking their mobile phones, doing anything it seems than enjoy what they supposedly came for – the movie. He points to the absence of ushers policing the theatre, cut long ago to save money.

And if you can block out all the distractions, the movie you are watching might not even be 1) in focus or 2) have the right aspect ratio. That’s right, you’ve guessed it – there’s no projectionist to check. Or at least there is one but they have 10 movies to get started so don’t have time to hang around and quality control.

Now Mark Kermode is a self-confessed Luddite, but the point is that when it comes to delivering an experience, technology is an imperfect substitute for humans.

If your job can be done by an algorithm – watch out!

During a project for a large consulting firm i found a similar pattern. In an efficiency drive they had replaced administrative assistants with various bits of software, moving to a self-serve admin process. This was to save money, but with consultants wrestling with unbendable billing software when they could be being charged out at thousands of pounds an hour it was unclear whether this cost-saving was actually achieved. Add in the fact that the software stressed the consultants out a great deal and you would have to call it a poor substitution.

Elsewhere in the building the new automatic door was unquestionably more efficient, but had far less charm than Bill the doorman who once worked there.

Recognising what’s lost

Social structures and processes are extremely complex and very hard, and (currently at least) impossible to replicate (even with advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotics that have given us Deep Blue, Asimov, and two chatbots talking to each other). Technology works best where it enhances rather than tries to replace. Undoubtedly automated processes in manufacturing have given large gains in productivity, but it’s less clear that such wholesale substitution works for the service industry.

Some customer-orientated businesses are recognising that unconstrained money-saving is harmful to the bottom line. Whether it’s banks that remain open on a Saturday or online retailers that provide a contact phone number, these business feel that investment in (human-based) customer service reap rewards.

One great example of being frank about their process and what technology can achieve is Moo.com, the online print shop, who qualify their e-communications from Little MOO with:

Remember, I’m just a bit of software, so if you have any questions regarding your order, the best place to start is with our Frequently Asked Questions. We keep the answers here: http://www.moo.com/help/faq/

If you’re still not sure, contact customer services, (who are real people) at: http://www.moo.com/help/contact-us.html

The trick is to think critically about the role of technology. Not just considering what it provides, but also what it takes away. Extensions of Man, not replacements.