Today more than ever: the lost chapter of The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

Computers and their software participate in every aspect of the precious and delicate relationship between the company and the customer. The typical customer first learns about your product from an email advertisement or a computerized mailing. He visits your website to find out more about it. He buys it from your online store, and you ship it to him by FedEx, where he uses software to track it on his PC. Once delivered, even if your product isn’t 100% software, it very likely has some silicon intelligence inside it. When your customer can’t figure out how to work it, he calls your company on the telephone (which is itself a computer). The first thing he hears is the stilted and artificial voice of your automated call distribution system, instructing him "for technical assistance, press one now." Finally, the software puts him in contact with a real human, only for him to find that this person-trained by software-is merely echoing instructions from a problem report database software program running on his computer!

What we have managed to accomplish in just a couple of decades is the complete transformation of every business relationship from a natural, interpersonal, human one to one that is defined, modulated, constrained, and tainted by computer software. While the power and benefits of this digital mediation are clearly worthwhile, they are accompanied by an equally large change in the fundamental character-the personality-of the interpersonal communications that are at the heart of all business practices.

The great promise of the information age is that computers help us to do everything. The great tragedy of the information age is that computers obstruct everything we do. Even while they give us new power to grow and change, they make everything harder to use and to understand. Software mediated communication is usually more powerful than the manual methods it replaces, but it is also more annoying and frustrating. That’s because its behavior reflects the software’s organization and not the way people think. Software gathers everything into identical little columns and fields, and performs tasks in one mode at a time. People generally don’t think or act that way, so working with software can be really bothersome. Probably the most insidious change digital technology is making to the business landscape is how it has come between people, acting as a middleman in every business relationship. Your customers probably like your salespeople more than they like your software.

The power of computers to improve business processes is obvious, and smart practitioners everywhere have embraced the new technologies, but the result has been this dramatic shift from human-to-human communication to human-to-computer-to-human communication. In the same way that your company offers up a computerized façade to your customers, most internal processes have been similarly taken over by digital mediators. Managers communicate with their staff using email and planning software. Marketing interacts with the advertising agency using project management software. Finance uses ERP software for banking and operations. Human Resources posts hiring notices to job bulletin boards on the World Wide Web. Product developers swap ideas with university researchers via databases and online discussion groups. Manufacturing engineers use CADCAM software instead of lathes and drills. Salespeople use customer relationship management (CRM) software to determine whom they should contact, when, and what should be said. And every one of your vendors, colleagues, customers and competitors is doing the same thing.

The irony of this is that it snuck up on us unawares. The change was subtle and indirect, and it was a revolution that happened from within. Years ago, when computers first entered the corporate office, they were so weak and expensive that they could only be cost-effectively applied to brute force tasks like sending invoices to a million customers. Only the technical priesthood of geeky programmers tended the computers, and they rarely spoke to anyone outside of the head office. Nobody imagined programmers would speak to other departments, especially salespeople or, even worse, customers. Yet, because of the digitization of all business communication, those programmers are now in the uneasy position of dictating all communications, even with the precious customer. This is profoundly affecting all business relationships.

Back in the industrial age, there were always sales or customer support people, skilled in the emollient ways of human relations, who could ease a disgruntled customer back into their good graces, quoting the credo: "The customer is always right." Today, that poor customer finds himself confronting only hard-nosed, intractable, implacable software at every turn. Before, when the company needed information from a customer, the salesperson could spend some time gathering it. Today, the customer is directed to a Website that demands the information in a rigid, unpleasant fashion. The human warmth and flexibility is missing. The humor and pathos and sympathy are absent. Only the unbending demands and imperious commands of the software remain to impress your customer with your personality. Is this really what businesspeople want?

Interaction Design is the process that gives businesses the help they need to bring human values and scale back into business communications. Approaching the design problem from a human point-of-view, rather than from a technical one, softens the behavior of software, reducing the rudeness, complexity and inappropriate actions of software. Letting bad software deteriorate our business relationships is not inevitable if we make Interaction Design the first part of the product development process.

Today, more than ever, Interaction Design is vital to the success of modern business. In the past, digital technology was merely an adjunct to business processes. Now, regardless of what business we are in, things are reversing, and digital technology has become the tail that wags the business process dog.

Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is the co-founder of Cooper and a pioneer of the modern computing era. He created the programming language Visual Basic and wrote industry-standard books on design practice like “About Face.”

Learn more

Subscribe to our mailing list and stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities.

Connect with us

Want to know how we can help your company drive real business progress?

Let’s talk

Stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities