Sunday, September 11, 2011

peeve no. 265 is users blaming the computer

No, user of the line-of-business program, the computer isn't the trouble-maker. It could be from time to time, if its parts are old or poorly-treated, but problems at that level tend to be much more noticeable than what you're describing. Generally, computers don't make occasional mistakes at random times. Despite what you may think, computers are dogged rather than smart. Computers do as instructed, and by "instructed" I mean nothing more than configuring the electricity to move through integrated circuits in a particular way. Computers can't reject or misunderstand instructions. No "inner presence" exists that could possibly do so.

I understand that placing blame on "the computer" can be a useful metaphor for our communication. But the distinction I'm drawing this time is substantive. To identify the precise cause of the issue that you've reported, a more complete picture is necessary. Your stated complaints about the computer's misdeeds really are complaints about something else. The reason to assign blame properly isn't to offer apologies or excuses. Figuring out the blame is the first step in correcting the issue and also in preventing similar issues.
  • Possibility one is a faulty discussion of the needed behavior for the program, way back before any computer played a role. Maybe the right set of people weren't consulted. Maybe the right people were involved, but they forgot to mention many important details. Maybe the analyst missed asking the relevant questions. Now, since the program was built with this blind spot, the issue that you reported is the eventual result.
  • Possibility two is a faulty translation of the needed behavior into ideas for the program. Maybe the analyst assumed too much instead of asking enough questions. Maybe the analyst underestimated the wide scope of one or more factors. Maybe the analyst was too reluctant to abandon an initial idea and overextended it. Maybe the analyst neglected to consider rare events that are not so rare.
  • Possibility three is faulty writing of the program itself. Maybe the coders overestimated their understanding of their tools and their work. Maybe the coders had comprehensive knowledgeable and didn't correctly or fully express what they intended. Maybe a fix had unfortunate side effects. Maybe the tests weren't adequate.
  • Possibility four is faulty data. Like blaming the computer, blaming the data is a symptom. Maybe something automated quit abruptly. Maybe manual entry was sloppy. Maybe the data is accurate and nevertheless unexpected. Maybe someone tried to force shortcuts. Maybe management is neither training nor enforcing quality control.  
  • Possibility five is faulty usability, which faulty data might accompany. "Usable" programs ease information processing from the standpoint of the user. Maybe the program isn't clear about what the user can do next. Maybe unknown terminology is everywhere. Maybe needless repetition encourages boredom and mistakes. Maybe, in the worst cases, staff decide to replace or supplement the program with pen marks on papers or fragile spreadsheets containing baroque formulae. Downfalls in usability may disconnect excellent users from excellent programs.  
  • Possibility six is the dreaded faulty organization, in which various units disagree or the decision-makers are ignorant. Maybe definitions are interpreted differently. Maybe the "innovators" are trying to push changes informally. Maybe the realm of each unit's authority are murky and negotiable at best. Maybe units are intentionally pulling in opposite directions. Regardless, the program probably will fail to reconcile the inherent contradictions across the organization.     
Often, in the Big Picture of the blunder, the computer is the most innocent of all contributors.

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