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Friday Philosophy – The One Absolute Requirement for System Success October 14, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
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What must you always achieve for an IT system to be a success?

  • Bug free? Never happens.
  • Within budget/time frame? That would be nice.
  • Includes critical business functionality? Please define critical.
  • Secure? Well, it’s important for many systems but then it is often lacking (even when it is important).
  • That it is to specification? Well we all know that’s wrong.

There is only one thing that an IT system must always achieve to be a success.

User Acceptance.

For an individual system other considerations may well be very important, but the user acceptance is, I think, non-negotiable.

{Slight update – This blog was written in 2011 with corporate IT systems in mind, where the use of the system is almost if not explicitly mandated. With the explosion of Apps and web-based systems over the last 5 years, for a lot of IT systems the users, the customers, have to be attracted to the system. We now call User Acceptance User Experience and it is, if anything, even more vital. If the user does not find the system easy to use and of some benefit, they will click off somewhere else.}

The user must get enough out of using the system for it to be worth their while, otherwise at best they will resent using it and at worst… Well, at worst they will use it but will put in any old rubbish to fulfill the dictate that it be used. In this worst case you would be better off if they did not use the system at all. Here are a couple of examples from my working past.

In the first one, I was involved in extending a hospital management system so that it kept track of the expected arrival and departure times for ward patients, allowing a predication of when beds would become available and calculation of expected occupancy rates. Yes, this was a while ago (maybe 1990) and on an a system that was old then. The information was needed by someone with the title “bed sister” {or something similar – and would now be titled “head of occupancy management!…} so that they could better manage the flow of patients and keep a higher bed usage ratio. Was this to make the hospital more efficient? No, it was to satisfy a politically demanded report to the NHS executive. Oh, the overall intention was to increase efficiency – but the report soon became more important than any true efficiency. So, we added columns in tables and field on screens and prompts for the ward staff to fill in the required new information.

And they didn’t.

The nurses were busy, they were pretty demoralized {due to having recently been used by the government as a way to control public sector pay} and they had more nursing duties to do than they could manage. They were not going to waste a couple of minutes trying to check when Mrs Jenkins was going to be sent home when Mrs Leonard needed a bed pan. The nursing staff were given a hospital-wide telling off, this information had to be entered. So they put in the data – but guessed wildly, just to get management off their backs. Thus the design of the system enhancement was fine, the report was logically accurate, only the correct staff could run it, but we failed to achieve User Acceptance and thus the system was a failure.

So I added something else. It was a very crude screen (this was 1990) that showed a “diagram” of a ward – Down the left and right side of a VT220 screen you saw little oblong boxes labelled with a bed number and in it the patient name, the consultant’s initials, a medical specialty code and the arrival and departure date-time. This was based on some information we already had plus the new information we wanted and the screen was quite basic, limited and slow to draw. But it was useful to the ward staff. They could find any patient, they knew who to call if there was an emergency {not the actual consultant of course, but their secretary :-)}, they could check when they expected a patient to leave, they could even see when a new patient was expected. They used it. They put in the expected departure times {sobering thought, this might not be expected leaving alive}, patients would be booked into empty beds when they became available (often before they actually arrived) and the bed nurse could plan new arrivals and the oh-so-important report could be run. We had achieved User Acceptance and the system became a success.

The second example is also from healthcare but from a different system in a different hospital. We were putting together a system to schedule outpatient clinics. We knew what we were doing, it’s pretty simple. You have some medical staff holding the clinic (a consultant and probably a senior house officer), a period for the clinic (3 or 4 hours) and a set of people to be seen, say 40. We gave some flexibility in slot lengths (some people need 5 minutes, some 15), checked for and stopped double booking and verified against other data such as correct speciality for the outpatient’s clinical data. We did not go and ask the patient admin staff about the spec, we knocked up the design and the screens and asked them to test. After all, I was very experienced now, I’d been doing these systems for 3, 4 years…

They very quickly came back to us and said it was rubbish. Oh dear.

We went and saw them. “What’s the problem?” There were a few – but the main one was that you could not double book a slot. Why would you want to do that? Do two patients really want to be consulted at the same time with the same doctor? {NB this can happen in some special cases – such as fertility treatment, psychology and a couple of others, but not Urology or Orthopedics!}
“Err, maybe, it might happen, can we just be able to double book?” OK, we could maybe alter things to allow two patients to be seen at the same time… The patient admin staff are not looking happy. The hospital liaison is looking confused & concerned and interrupts – “You can’t do that! Patient confidentiality can’t be broken!” he says. It got worse. “We need to be able to book… several people in one slot”. How many? “We need to book all the patients into the first slot, with the consultant, so the letters go out to them saying come to see Mr Winders at 1pm”. The admin staff are now looking very shifty.

If any of you have worked in the health service you are probably way ahead of me. The admin staff needed to book all the patients in at this first slot so that the ill and suffering would all turn up at the start of the session. The consultant would then run through his notes and see the two or three he was interested in – and then go and play golf. The Senior House Officer (or whoever) would then work through the rest of the patients for the following three or four hours. If you have ever had to turn up at the start of a consultancy session and sat there for three hours, now you know why. You see, back then, the consultant was only a very small step away from deity level (and I leave it to you to decide if it was a step up or down). What they said went and if they wanted to go and play golf or store 200 medical records in the boot of their car or refuse to speak to “that stupid idiot in renal medicine” then you worked around it. {I’m assured that things are a lot better now, but I’d love to know how it really is}.

We had designed a sensible solution. The users of the system needed a non-sensible {to our mind} solution. Even the NHS liaison chap had never appreciated exactly how much the consultants abused the system, he thought they just booked the people s(he) wanted at the start of the session, but no. The consultant decided that day who was interesting and as a result every patient had to be there at the start.

I count myself lucky that I learnt from direct experience so soon in my working life that (a) you have to deliver what the user will accept and (b) the only way to know what they want is to show them the system and talk with them.

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1. Dom Brooks - October 14, 2011

Thank crunchy – Fridays don’t feel like Fridays without Friday Philosophy.

2. Graham - October 14, 2011

the only way to know what they want is to show them the system and talk with them.>> or talk to them, then show them a system and then talk to them some more.

mwidlake - October 14, 2011

Yeah, there is a lot of talking involved. Unfortunately, I think that is something people who gravitate towards IT often are not so happy doing :-) Not until you get older and go to quieter pubs that is…

The hardest thing I find about requirements identification is finding more than three ways of saying “and what are the exceptions”. It’s always the exceptions that catch the system out…

3. David Harper - October 14, 2011

A certain software development team at an organisation of our acquaintance is re-advertising a couple of developer jobs for the third or fourth time in more than a year.

You may be amused to know that this time, instead of highlighting all of the techy/geeky requirements (“must be Agile”, “must be a Ruby on Rails expert”, …) up front, the job ad now gives top billing to “must have excellent people skills and ability to communicate”. Skills related to programming and web development are well down the list.

It’s about four years too late to do any good, if you ask me, but someone finally seems to have got the message.

4. jgarry - October 15, 2011

There’s a push in San Diego to make city workers more efficient by making them have to compete with outside contractors – they call this “managed competition.” So the first group put out to bid was city printing services. They won – then discovered the city was forcing them to use a less efficient computer system than the one they preferred. So they ask for more people to use this system, and get denied. Union is calling this “bait-and-switch.” I take a more sour view, management shifts the management cost-cutting decision on to the workers, then force the workers to do more work without being able to make their own tasking decisions.

Then there’s IT… http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/mar/11/outside-bid-for-city-computer-services-gets-tepid/

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