We can't get no satisfication: Computer systems, complexity and human nature

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Human beings are odd creatures. Example: we satisfice. We exhibit that tendency when we discover a way of doing things that is, however awkward and convoluted, strangely comforting over time.

Relatives who get to the google.com home page by searching Yahoo for Google are satisficing. No matter how often you explain you could just enter the URL directly, they will continue with their familiar routine. We are creatures of habit, no matter how wonky and convoluted that habit might be. But, and here again is evidence of our oddness, we route around the complexity imposed by others.

If someone introduces a process at work that requires us to click on a different button or save a file a new way, we route around those new complexities like water curving to either side of a boulder in a stream.

In both cases we are craving simplicity. It's just that, strange creatures that we are, we are blind to self-created complexity -- in other words, engrained familiar patterns, even convoluted ones, become worn smooth and frictionless by the grit of repetition.

We are also irrepressibly social beings. With the exception of the psychopaths among us, we, like Blanche Dubois, depend upon the kindness of strangers. When we are stressed, our first reaction is to seek social comfort and comparison. When we are excited, we want to share. When we fail or do wrong, we worry about the social approbation. We crave (and I say this as an introvert) community, conversation and collaboration.

So, these two realities: humans are social and crave simplicity, should be key guideposts for any kind of computer system or process that hopes to attract the interest and adoption of its users.

But, oddly, many organizations create IT processes and adopt software solutions that turn their backs on these key characteristics of human nature.

And what do the odd social, satisficing creatures in the organizations do? They route around the complexity. Give staff a complex, unreliable and dated web conferencing tool that requires a login and they'll fire up Skype or a Google Hangout instead. Require staff to use a secure but complicated file-sharing process and they'll download Dropbox. Require that employees check in and check out Word documents in order to work on them and teams will fire up Google Docs and gang-edit a document simultaneously. Create a collaborative space that is unfriendly to social media tools and is little more than a Word document graveyard, and groups, yearning to collaborate, will start a wiki.

In other words, organizations that create mechanistic, security-centric and integrated solutions will ironically, end up with two parallel worlds.

The one will be the artificial one where everything is secure, integrated and as efficient as a librarian's file cabinet.

The other is the real world where security, order and integration are sacrificed by employees who use simple, free tools to actually get work done in a social, frictionless way.

As we've seen in government after government, when the ways people want to live and work divert sufficiently from the ways a ruling class tries to make them work, we get a revolution. Ironically, the very tools the people adopt to live their social lives makes it easy for them to start a revolution.

Organizations that subvert the needs of users to the needs of legislation, security and IT infrastructure should prepare themselves for placards in a cafeteria. Not that: "What do we want!" "Tools for us!" "When do we want them?" "Let me search yahoo.com to Google that for you!" is much of a rallying cry.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Phoenix Dark-Knight/flickr

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