Customer Service Update:  Regular readers will remember my series of surreal encounters with supermarket checkout staff (see  I had a new one last weekend, when the assistant who was packing my bags in the Marks & Spencer food hall told me: “I’ve tied a knot in this bag’s handle, so you’ll know it’s got your eggs in it.”  If only she could have come up with an equivalent aide-memoire for the other 80 items, my unpacking logistics would have so much easier.  Maybe she thought I had some obsessive-compulsive disorder related specifically to eggs, and was going to spend the drive home in agony, worrying about which bag they were in.  Still, it’s the thought that counts I suppose.  None of which has anything to do with this fortnight’s topic….


Invasion of the Techno Freaks


We seem to be hearing a lot at the moment about biomimetics.  This, for the uninitiated, is where science comes up with an innovation inspired by some quality within nature.  It sounds like a wonderfully wholesome, new-age-friendly discipline, but so far all we’ve got to show for it is Velcro, and sharkskin swimming costumes that make you go 0.02% faster while looking like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  I’m waiting for industry to borrow something from nature that will genuinely benefit the average worker - like the ability to squirt acid from your backside to deter predators.  Until then, we’re stuck with the all-conquering microchip.


I was recently running a workshop in a London hotel, in which each meeting room had a hi-tech water cooler, the like of which I had not seen before.  After dispensing my water into a paper cup, a dot matrix display on the front lit up with an important looking message.  I bent down to read it. It said, simply: “Here is your water”.  I don’t know how many leading-edge innovators it took to come up with something so pointless and unnecessary, but wouldn’t they be better employed coming up with ways to free up the time we spend enslaved by technology?


Let me be clear, I have no quarrel with those who unleash their technological literacy in R&D departments around the globe.  It’s just that, without anyone to moderate their activities, they make everything so… well, technological I suppose.  You remember the old saying, “Give a child a hammer and everything becomes a nail”?  Well, you put a technology whizzkid in charge of developing new technology and they will make it as feature rich and elaborate as possiblea triumph of form over function, like the plethora of flashing displays on the front of cheap hifis.


Making computers user-friendly for users who know nothing about computers is a task inevitably given to people who know everything about computers.  Big mistake.  These are people who believe that when my computer goes wrong, it would be helpful to flash up a message telling me that rnaap.dll has caused a general protection fault in ds000321 line 458321 5tf46pph ref bd234fg67.  (At such times, obviously, I breathe a sigh of relief and think: “Thank goodness for that - for I moment I thought it might be something serious!”)  These are people who believe that the way to increase my productivity is to reorganise my typing into a numbered list every time I hit the ‘return’ key, and to autocorrect my spelling so that, in the paragraph before last, you would have read phrases like “put a technology whisk in charge…” and “flashing displays on the front of cheap hives”. 


It is not a new phenomenon.  Fifteen years ago, as managing editor of a travel publisher, I hired a computer programmer whose brief was to build a hotel database which could output entries ready for printing. (Ah, nostalgia: the days when your computer’s welcome screen was black with “C:>” in the top left corner, and Bill Gates said: "640K ought to be enough for anybody.") The first programmer, after three days of solid work, proudly showed me the result of his Herculean labours: he’d programmed the software to spell out the name of the publisher in little pixels when you switched it on.  Even the fact that he’d spelt it wrong couldn’t dampen his enthusiasm.  I think we got through six programmers in the first fortnight, until I fell off my chair when the seventh one introduced himself by saying: “Can you spare half an hour?  I’d like to ask you what you actually want this to do.”


 All of this is why, if you are interested in building a real creative team, it’s best to make sure that no more than half the members are subject experts.  Selection criteria for the remainder vary with the end goal, but I would usually suggest at least one each of:

·         Someone who knows nothing at all about anything to do with what’s going on (my particular speciality)

·         Someone who can think like the end user or customer

·         Someone who can tell you why everything is a bad idea

·         Someone who can get all these people to listen to each other (sorry, I think that’s what the consultant does – I got confused for a moment).


I plan to dedicate a future issue to suggestions for technological innovations which would be genuinely useful – all suggestions to the usual address.  In the meantime, there’s an animated paperclip on my screen who tells me it looks like I’m writing a letter – excuse me while I straighten him out.


© Phil Lowe, 2004.  All rights reserved.