January 24, 2018

Market Analysis

Missile launches, false alarms and a user experience wake-up call

This article first appeared on CIO.com.

It’s long past time for enterprise leaders to see the role of the interface and the importance of the customer experience in its rightful, mission-critical place.

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” —Text from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency on January 13, 2018

As most everyone is now aware, the state of Hawaii sent its citizens into a panic earlier this month by erroneously issuing a warning that a missile attack was imminent. The state announced that the employee who triggered the false alarm had been “temporarily reassigned.”

But in my opinion, they may have reassigned the wrong employee.

While human error was certainly at play here (he did, after all, confirm his desire to send the alert), there is another factor that I believe is more important and meaningful from a long-term perspective: this was as much about a failure in the user experience as it was about human error.

Somewhere, there is a programmer or development team that designed the user interface that the now-in-hiding employee used to signal either a test of the alert process or to send a real alert to the citizens of Hawaii. And more than anything else, it is that design that failed spectacularly.

It is easy and tempting to see this incident as a one-off occurrence. Predictably, the agency immediately implemented a change to the design so that it now requires a second employee to confirm the sending of an alert.

That quick fix, however, misses the bigger point: the user experience is now mission critical.

Why the user experience is now mission-critical

In spite of all the chatter about the importance of design and the customer experience, enterprise organizations still spend far too little of their resources focused on the user (or customer) experience. Most organizations still view interface design and the customer experience as an afterthought — a pretty window dressing to the real guts and glory of the code beneath.

But as technology becomes deeply entwined into every nook and cranny of an organization’s operational state, the ramifications of an otherwise simple mistake begin to take on epic proportions — as made all too viscerally clear for Hawaiian residents on this recent Saturday morning.

While mistakes will always be possible, the role of the application interface and its positive — or negative — impact on the user experience is now mission critical. When done right, an intuitive and elegant experience can become a competitive differentiator in and of itself — driving revenue, profit and market share.

Done wrong, it can spell business and financial disaster. Or maybe even start a war.

And the stakes are only going to get higher. Technology will continue to seep into every imaginable crevice of the organization. Customer expectations will continue to evolve at an increasing rate. Markets will continue to demand that organizations operate faster each day. There will simply be no room for error.

Our immersive and ambient future

On the one hand, it is clear that organizations must invest more human and capital resources on design. In the short term, cleaning up existing interfaces to avoid mistakes like the Hawaiian false alarm and create more intuitive and enriched experiences should be a critical task.

But merely improving existing interfaces will only go so far — particularly as consumer technology begins to introduce all of us to immersive and ambient design approaches.

Alexa, Siri and other so-called voice assistants are training an entire generation of current and future technology consumers that they do not require a keyboard and monitor to interact with a computer system.

More importantly, the omnipresent nature of these voice assistants — always just a wake word away — is introducing consumers to the idea of an ambient interface. An ambient interface — more technically called ambient intelligence — is an environment in which systems sense, predict and respond to our needs dynamically and automatically. In most cases, there is no traditional interface as we unobtrusively interact with the system.

Or so the story goes.

The false comfort of modern

This type of immersive, ambient interface demands that systems — and their developers — see the world through the eyes of their technology’s consumer and intuit their intent and desire. This philosophy is referred to as user-centered design — and is still a foreign concept in most enterprise development organizations.

Riding the wave of modernization, most enterprise organizations will be investing significant resources in creating modern interfaces for their new, digitally transformed technology stack. I fear that these new interfaces will not, in fact, be modern — only modern-looking.

Beneath the fancy window dressing will remain poor interface design. The predictable result will be customer dissatisfaction, business process failures — or worse. And just as predictably, enterprise leaders will be scratching their head wondering why their new snazzy interface didn’t fix the problem.

It’s long past time for enterprise leaders to see the role of the interface and the importance of the customer experience in its rightful, mission-critical place. And it’s time for them to act and invest accordingly.


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