Getting simple ICT shouldn’t be complicated
My husband likes, on occasion, to cook. He doesn’t call it cooking of course: it’s culinary creation, during which he somehow manages to use every single herb and spice in the cupboard, even if he is only making an omelette. His opinoins is that because we have a lot of ingredients, to a lesser or greater degree we should make use of them.
I was reminded of this when I sat through a presentation about the latest piece of software being touted to me recently. The salesman took us through what it could do, ring all of its bells and blowing its whistles, and over the course of three hours showed us how his many other customers live their lives by the information they put in and get out of this master system.
Not once did he really think of asking us what we actually needed it to do.
The spec we were developing is simple enough; we need a system to hold some information, allow members of the public to leave some comments and to hold different types of information in an easily searchable system. In essence we want something no more complicated than a simple dating website.
Instead the presentation we received from this salesman – and many before him – took us through pages of different reports it could churn out, how they could change the logo (oooohhhh……..) to our own, how they could accept more than one user logging on at the same time, some strange collaboration software seemingly bundled in and a suite of other less useful options, along with three different modules which could be plugged in to do even more random stuff.
Essentially, he didn’t understand that just because we could, doesn’t mean we should.
This focus on the technology behind ICT tools rather than what we actually want it to do seems to be endemic at my council. I have lost count of the number of systems over the years which have promised that they will be game changers, that if only everyone uses them to their fullest extent then the worries of the world will melt away, and that all such use will take is a three day training course (delivered at additional expense of course).
If the late, great Steve Jobs taught us anything, it’s to look at what we are trying to do first, and then make the technology fit around that. According to legend, after the disappointing launch of MobileMe he called his team together, asking them “Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?” Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued; “So why the **** doesn’t it do that?”
That simple thinking too often goes out of the window when we look at developing or procuring council ICT projects. Everyone is so focussed on the sales pitch, on agreeing a four hundred page technical specification and tieing everything together in one neat but fictional single sign-on utopia that they end up with systems which meet the interests of the people developing it rather than the needs of their service or our residents.
Take intranet sites for example. Ask many users what they want on an intranet site and they will keep things simple: a directory of phone numbers for council officers, easy access to some news about the council in general and some links to any templates they need.
Corporately, to this list is added every policy and procedure there is, along with guidance and signposting so as it can be said that everyone has access to all of the council information they need.
So why then do we end up with intranet sites providing weather reports, news feeds and links to our e-mails? Some have whole areas dedicated to managing downloads, others also have links to photos taken several years ago which are useless.
As with all of our work, we need to trim much of our ICT functionality back to what we and its users need it to do. If we want a system to allow people to check their library books in online, let them do that and don’t then also expect them to use it to produce a graph showing the number of other people who had borrowed that book; if the system is there to deliver news updates to them then it shouldn’t also be trying to track whether or not they were sticking to their diet by counting their calories.
If we keep in mind what we need ICT to do rather than getting sidetracked by all of the other things it could do, we can concentrate on making this work better than eer before. We have less time and money than ever: focussing both will result in far better systems.
We should start thinking along the lines of “would Apple do this?” rather than “if only everyone uses all of the features here, our problems are solved!”. Let’s keep it simple.
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