Stop optimising for the average (whether policies or systems)

The average citizen of the United Kingdom is a forty year old hermaphrodite (with one mammary and one testicle), living near Watford Gap with an income (from a mix of earnings, benefits and savings of around £20,000).

Tax and welfare policies that are optimal for that mythical individual are sub-optimal for the rest of us.

Many are unfit for purpose, if the purpose is to cost-effectively and efficiently meet the needs of the 80% of us who deal with government as little as possible – because it is usually to pay a tax rather than receive any significant benefit.

Many, perhap even most, are also unfit for purpose, if the purpose is to humanely assist the 20% who account for most of government transactions with the public – leading lives of quiet despair as they lurch from crisis to crisis, often made worse by welfare systems which assume their needs are predictable and penalise them for any interludes of paid work.

After a fortnight of listening to well-intentioned, perfectionist claptrap during the party conference season I needed to get get that off my chest. The cult of optimising for the average (whether citizen or user) is common to policy wonks on all side. It also lies at the heart of most computer systems thinking. Hence the failure of centralised, standardised policies and the systems to support them, however well planned. 

I have heard some quite sensible ideas, from all parties. But unless they are implemented from the bottom up, using simple systems with the manual handling of exceptions, they will all fail. Meanwhile those who believe in localism and choice, have yet to muster the courage to say that the very concept of the nation state, born of the railway age, has passed its “sell by” date.   

But the internationalists who look to global solutions are equally wrong.

The Internet is fast becoming part of the problem, not the solution. Most enthusastic internetties also appear to believe in the myth of optimisation, the “wisdom of crowds” and that their algorithms will, sooner or later, find the progressive e-nirvana.

That is why Google is becoming less help in finding anything useful. You are commonly routed to those who pay most for your eyeball – whether direct to Google in advertising fees or to those who try to manipulate its ratings without paying. I was recently looking to buy a cheap PA system for a voluntary group which cannot afford hire charges. I like to think I am quite good at using search engines. I gave up after trying to plough through pages of irrelevant entries. Half an hour later one of my colleagues had found one by ringing (old fashioned telephone) a friend.

As I said last week, the attempts to herd us on-line by withdrawing physical access to services risk an interesting backlash. I did not invent the phrase “as user friendly as a cornered rat” (I got it from a journalist who had found it in a software review) but it came into common use after I used it at the National Computing Annual Conference in 1993 during my session on the state of the market for microcomputer applications software. It applies today to all to many on-line applications and is the prime reason for “computer rage”.

That said we should remember that the other reason for “computer rage” is that we have come to expect fast, efficient and easy to use systems as part of everyday life  – except that most of us do not think of our mobile phone and its apps as a computer that we are using to access the Internet and cloud computing. I attended the launch of the BCS study “The Information Dividend” which  showed that “computers” and the “Internet” make us happier. The apparent contradictions became clear when the researchers explained  that when it worked it was a phone, a netbook, an i-phone – a friend. When it did not – it was a computer. The same is probably true for all those systems designed for the hermaphrodite who lives near Watford Gap. If they also do something useful to the rest of us, rapidly and reliably, we do not even notice them. It is when they fail or “computer say no” is used as an excuse for poor service …  

 

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