IT Spring – So this application is your friend?

This article is created together with my dear colleague Mark Smalley. Mark Smalley is employed as an IT Management Consultant by Capgemini in the Netherlands and also works for the not-for-profit ASL BiSL Foundation, where he is Director of International Affairs, promoting best practices in management of information systems around the globe. He writes and speaks on application management and related topics (ASL, BiSL, IT Governance, Business IT Alignment) on a regular basis and has reached out to several thousand people in more than ten countries in four continents. He lectures in Brussels, Hangzhou and Rotterdam and contributes to EXIN certification material. Mark’s other persona’s include Blind Monk, CYO, IT Paradigmologist, IT Management Philosopher and Stand-up IT Consultant. Of course you can follow Mark on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn

Parts of this blog post are from the whitepaper Mark en I published earlier this month and can be downloaded here. CEO Marc Benioff said that enterprise technology is going to face an uprising akin to the Arab Spring in the Middle East. The theme is that customers are going to revolt against traditional enterprise software as corporations become more social. Mark and I fully agree, especially since we are working on this topic for the last couple of months.

IT users have had a rough ride. Ever since the introduction of IT sixties odd years ago, IT departments have been acting like divine beings,telling the users what was good for them. For the first twenty years or so, IT boffins were treated as incomprehensible but brilliant scientistswho were treated with the same deference as doctors used to be. Yes doctor, no doctor. But then the inevitable happened and cracks startedto appear. Projects failed to deliver. Costs rocketed. Functionalitydidn’t function. IT fell from its pedestal and became a fallen angel,retreating into a “Just tell us what you want” position, with the implicit message “and then it’s your fault when it goes wrong”.

Stockholm syndrome

Users (unlike IT) are regular people and regular people tend to adapt to uncomfortable situations. People need defense mechanisms in order to survive. Ever felt happy with an application when you’ve completed a longish transaction without it having crashed and losing your data? Yep, that’s the Stockholm syndrome: “a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express adulation and have positive feelings towards their captors that appear irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, essentially mistaking a lack of abuse from their captors as an act of kindness”. I think of some applications as benevolent dictators. You’re obliged to use them and they direct your actions in a polite but firm way: “Please re-enter your data”. Including the data that it could have but hasn’t bothered to save for you.

Another human trait is to give things human attributes. So let’s anthropomorphize a bit. Can applications be happy, grumpy, authoritative, lazy, reliable, fickly, cruel, stupid, intuitive, responsive, sexy? Sure they can. Think about it. Now we’ve elevated applications to a near human level, lets develop a relationship with them. Your relationship with an application will probably go through a lifecycle something like this.

  • Anticipation – you’re looking forward to getting the app or being authorized to use it
  • Disappointment – Too high expectations
  • Resignation – Guess you’d better get used to it
  • Acclimatization – It’s not that bad after all
  • Frustration – It’s habits are annoying me more and more
  • Alienation – The thrill has gone

Seeing as all relationships seem to come with a ‘best before date’, it’ll probably end up ugly. So now we’ve established that users have a relationship with apps, why not formalize it by liking and friending the app? Or disliking or unfriending? And why not tweet your app? Post cool pics on your app’s wall.

Application emotional development

Something that most people have forgotten, or never knew is that ‘computer’ used to be a job description, not a collection of wires and disks. You could ask these people to compute things for you, which they did, in a very human way. However the human part was lost in translation when things got automated.

Traditional application development tends to be very functional. Like seats in German cars. You can almost hear them saying “Sit upright on this firm seat, it is good for your back”. It maybe be functional but it’s not the experience I’m looking for. I don’t feel engaged. The next step in application development is that applications move on from aloof and unresponsive beings to becoming more social apps. Apps that friend you, send you tweets, tweet about you. And unfriend you – Outlook: “I feel abused”. Or a printer driver that unfriends you because you ignore the ink replenishment warning. Apps will be on Facebook and Twitter. The more traditional business apps will probably just want to be on LinkedIn. So when are IT folk going to get around to building apps that appeal to the emotional side of people?

IT spring: the users are revolting

Back to the users. There’s something in the air. The younger generations of users have completely different and irreverent opinions about IT. “IT’s just there to be used.” Smartphones, iPads and apps are just expected to work within the corporate IT environment. “You don’t dictate which pen I use to write a note, so why are you taking such an interest in my apps?” ‘Bring your own IT’ is quick becoming the norm. Not for ‘public transport’ train and bus applications of
course. Back to the users. There’s an undercurrent of discontent about the current IT regime and social media has made this painfully transparent. Even if a dictator’s benevolent, he’s still a dictator. Users want to be recognized as somebody who’s in a relationship with an application, either out of their free volition or because their organizations require them to use it. And they want a say in the relationship. So give them the vote. And don’t fiddle with the ballot
boxes – they want transparency. Just like we had the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Arab Spring in 2011, 2012 well could see the IT Spring. Liberate the users! Topple the IT dictators! Banish them to Silicon Valley (where they’ll probably try to govern in exile).