The Invisible Interface

2019.07.04 by Josh Erb; 753 words.

During my relatively brief time in the “real world” I’ve noticed a bit of a pattern when teams are frustrated about their tools. The knowledge that I’ve noticed a pattern. Regardless of how novel my epiphany is, has lodged itself in my brain long enough that I’m desperate to have it removed. This post is more an attempt at exorcism than it is ground breaking business theory that I’m eager to share with the world.

OK. Caveats out of the way. I want to talk to you about why “that great new software” that’s going to solve your frustrations with work won’t actually solve your problems. Regardless of what some marketing team has been whispering to you via social media ad campaigns.

Now, I haven’t thought about this hard enough to have clear delimitations or a taxonomy of which types software this pattern is most likely to appear alongside. But in my experience it’s any software focused on coordinating the efforts of more than 3 humans. I think it applies mostly to project management software, but I’m going to speak in broad and general terms so as not to limit the future potential.

A Hypothetical Workplace Situation

The scenario begins like this. Something about someone’s job is frustrating. Let’s say it’s keeping track of a feature requests for the product your company makes. Let’s also say, for ease of reference, this person’s name is Émile. Émile’s frustration stems from the fact that his team is responsible for tracking and prioritizing these feature requests. But there are so many requests, and each member of his team keeps track of them in a different way! When Émile needs to sit in meetings and talk about what’s most important, he feels unprepared. One day, Émile stumbles across an advertisement for a new software, HubSite™. HubSite™, the copy reads, is designed exactly to help teams more effectively track and prioritize feature requests. Émile is ecstatic. He launches a propaganda campaign to rally others to the cause of using this software at work. He is convinced that it will save him from the nightmare of running around in circles trying to pull this information from disparate sources every week.

You use tools, they don’t use you

The sad truth is that HubSite™ will not save Émile. In fact, it will most likely add an additional layer of administrative overhead to his job responsibilities. New software requires teams to learn how to use new software. To make matters much, much worse, new software is often introduced into environments that already use an alternative software to meet these needs. Moving information and updating human processes are significant changes that require dedicated work.

To wax Durkheimian for a moment, the dysfunction exists not because of the existing tools but because of the social conditions that fail to alleviate this pain in the first place. Computers are number boxes. They store the numbers when you provide them, and they provide the numbers they store when you ask for them. That’s basically it. The root cause of the frustration is that Émile needs to have consensus among his team on how best to keep track of the information that his team is capturing on a regular basis.

Yes, design is important. And I don’t mean to discount the fact that there are some exceptionally poorly designed softwares out there. But there are also some really poorly designed softwares that work exceptionally well for teams! The ideal solution might be having team members put a post-it note on a designated wall after any meeting where a customer mentions a feature request.

The crux of the matter, to my mind, is that as long as everyone on the team is aware of the system and understands how to participate in it most effectively, the system will work.

Social Consensus > Tools

I think the core of this thought, and the one I’m currently spinning in circles trying to express, is that between your brain and the keyboard there is always another invisible layer of user interface. This layer is the social and cultural expectations you and your team has built around that system. If you do not take this layer into account, and instead jump from software to software - always telling yourself that this next tool is going to solve all your problems - then you will be dogged by frustrations in everything you do.

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