Design, Develop, Create

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Is implementation success due to design superiority?

Is implementation success due to design superiority or is it due to successfully managing user buy-in and product marketing? The question is central to process of technology and ICT implementation. It is usually a question that results in two different answers; claims that success is down to design superiority, or that success achieved by co-opting the user (conditioning technology acceptance of individual behaviour). These two positions represent two contrasting theories of agency, that technological objects determine use - technological determinism, or that social interpretation defines use - social determinism (Grint & Woolgar, 1997). Technological determinism characterises the belief that technology's intrinsic properties are objectively superior (or inferior), lending it to successfully satisfy user's goals and the power to succeed against other similar technologies in a competitive environment. Social selection of technology assumes the user has the final say as to whether the technology works well, is useable, even desirable. User perceptions can be managed or conditioned by others and so technology implementation becomes a matter of social agency rather than technology fitness.

I'm not going to make a balanced argument here in favour of one or the other, instead I'll pitch the idea that aspects of both are present but that characterising the problem in terms of duality is yet another error. ICT implementation is neither 'either, or' nor is it a synthesis of both. It is something rather more complex, something that employs technology as material resources, involves experiential unfolding for individuals, includes social and political processes of groups, and aspects of aesthetics, usability, and design performance.

The history of leading edge technology implementations offer valuable lessons for current developers. Much analysis characterise the performance of high tech elements, standards, products and services in terms of economic performance (Moore, 1998, Shy, 2001). Classic examples of high tech adoption dynamics include fax machines, video standards, word processor markets (Shapiro & Varian, 1998). High tech products and services are network industries, network markets in which small positive or negative effects amplify demand and supply characteristics. These are markets which can be understood at the macro level by thinking in terms of network externalities, where external factors beyond individual control drive or depress demand for goods and services. However macroscopic analyses are poor guidance for product designers and software architects. The producer's concern should be to create something that is more than just a combination of necessary features, a high tech product or service must be usable, valuable, viable, and desirable if it is to have a chance of being successful; "success and failure are driven as much by consumer expectations and luck as by the underlying value of the product." (Shapiro & Varian, 1998:181)

Screen-display pointing devices
This story highlights the practical development of the computer mouse, illustrating how technological performance is linked to user perception and that the development process must therefore include cycles of prototype, user assessment, new development (Moggridge, 2006).

Doug Engelbart talks about creative variety that led to the development of the first generation computer mouse.
Doug Engelbart (in Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge)

Stu Card recalls the design values and aesthetics that became the 'human factors' of optimal designs for hand operated display pointing devices.
Stu Card (in Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge)

Paul Bradley recalls the prototype-refinement process that was involved in the design of the Microsoft mouse which set a standard for both human factors and manufacturing refinement.
Paul Bradley in (in Designing Interactions by Bill Moggridge)

The case of RTC enabled groupware
An illustration of the complexity associated with developing new high-tech product categories by reviewing peer-to-peer web telephony in the early 2000s.

Where was internet telephony heading in the early 2000s? VOIP saw very slow adoption and demand in the 1990s in spite of hype and positive commentary. It was impossible to select a technology and say with any certainty that it would succeed in the market or to what degree it will be successful. This holds for technology elements (e.g. WAP, SMS, GSM, HTTP, VRML, EDI etc) and for systems built using underlying elements (e.g. VOIP and precursor services such as ICQ, AIM, IM, Skype, Google Talk, Lotus Sametime, and Fring).

The precursor to web telephony was chat and messaging. My own organisation's first reaction to the rise in internet chat via IM and ICQ services was to actively block or restrict their use, thinking of them as leaky information channels, external services hosting and storing the firm's internal communications. This fear of exposure was compounded when we discovered our engineers using messaging to exchange code fragments when troubleshooting software among themselves or when supporting clients. Once we accepted the inevitability and indeed the value of messaging as necessary element of our IT infrastructure we had to consider which clients could be installed, what external servers to use and what limitations to place on acceptable use policy. While as a management team we really struggled to accommodate and manage messaging services VOIP was easier to understand; cheap or free phone calls, simple! The question simply being how much bandwidth was taken and what data charges were entailed?
Skype's availability icons

By 2003 Skype appeared to have burst upon the stage as an overnight success. One of things that Skype got right early was ease of use and the introduction of a new way of thinking about people's availability. While 'presence status' features predated Skype's green or red availability icons Skype successfully popularised the concept of passively broadcasting an individual's virtual availability. Users could establish a 'feeling' for the presence of friends and colleagues via the status icon. More broadly Skype's early success can also argued to be due to its innovative peer to peer architecture which coincided with greater broadband availability, media enabled PCs, weakened POTS monopolies, and a host of other external factors but usability and social appropriation was a significant determinant in Skype's early success. Skype's minimalist offering was instantly appealing, word-of-mouth recommendations generated interest, and the number of Skype users online any time around the world reached 3 Million by 2005. Presence based information and real time collaboration tools had now become basic entry level features for all kinds of groupware products or services. The era of social networks had dawned.

Grint, K. & Woolgar, S. (1997) The Machine At Work: Technology, Work And Organization, Polity Press.
Moggridge, B. (2006) Designing Interactions, Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press.
Moore, G. A. (1998) Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customer, Oxford, Capstone Publishing Ltd.
Shapiro, C. & Varian, H. R. (1998) Information rules : a strategic guide to the network economy, Boston, Mass., Harvard Business School Press.
Shy, O. (2001) The Economics of Network Industries, Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, Cambridge University Press.