Now, combining that faith with a little healthy British cynicism, and triggered by watching the Olympics tennis finals on TV, a mischievous but irresistible thought came to my mind.
It used to be that when a ball hit the ground near the line we relied on the human eye to say whether it was ‘in’ or ‘out’. That caused disagreements and discussion – and - in tennis often - sulking, swearing and the full range of petulant behaviour.
Nowadays that is all replaced by referencing the technology. When there is doubt – or one of the players questions a call - then we simply ask the computers. What we get then is a neat little picture representing the appropriate lines on the court and a blob showing where the ball had hit. So, problem solved: disappointment still for one player but, so it seems, total acceptance that the computer is right. After all it is an expensive system working away inside a very expensive box – must be right, mustn’t it. Or to put it another way ‘computer says in’, who would argue?
But what occurred to me is this. All we can actually see is some boxes around the court, and a stylised display with a blob on it. That could be delivered by one person with a tablet showing the court lines and them touching the screen where they think it landed. Very cheap and still solves all the arguments because – naturally – everyone trusts technology don’t they!
Now – of course, and before anyone calls their lawyers – I am not suggesting for the merest moment that there is the slightest possibility of such a thing happening. But it’s fun to think it might be possible. There is little public awareness of what accuracy the system – and here I presume it does really exist – works to. If you dig around on the web you can find out (the answer by the way for tennis is 3.6mm). You also find out there is some very minor grumbling and questioning going on. But that seem at geek level – in everyday use the audience stands instantly convinced.
So, thinking it through there are a couple of interesting consequences to real IT life:
- Once you realise that trust depends on quality of presentation at least as much as on accuracy, should you focus more on that? Certainly you have to take presentation seriously, because the corollary is that if you deliver perfection but don’t make it look good, then no-one will believe it even though you are right.
- Whose responsibility is it to check – and is it even possible? I suspect this discussion will take us into the territory of ‘governance’. But even before we get there it implies that User Acceptance Testing needs to do more than look at things. Of course yours does, doesn’t it?
I guess my big issue is to wonder how comfortable we are – as the deliverers of the technological solutions for our customers – and especially our users - to have such blind faith. Of course, people being the irrational things they undoubtedly are, that blind faith in the detail is often accompanied by a cynical disregard for overall competence – think faith in ATMs and on-line bank account figures with the apparent level of trust in the banking industry as a whole.
As a little codicil to the story, I registered with anew doctor yesterday – the nurse asked me questions, took blood pressure etc and loaded all the data she collected into a computer. The system was clearly ancient, with a display synthesising what you typically got on a DOS3.0 system. First thought: ‘OMG why are they using such old software, that can’t be good? Second thought: ‘They’ve obviously been using it for years, so they really understand it, have ironed out all the bugs and it does what they need. It ain’t broke so they aren’t fixing it’. But my instinctive reaction of suspicion of it for not being pretty was there and I had to consciously correct myself.
Would you as a service provider prefer more questioning of what you package up and present to your customers and users, or are you happy to have that faith? My own view is that the more blind faith they have in you, the more the retribution will hurt if things do go wrong. Or perhaps that’s just me being cynical again?