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The Impact of Complexity on Technology Services

What role does complexity play on our ability or inability to ensure the warranty and utility of the technology services provided to end-users?  This question is central to our ability to provide technology services that meet a particular need in a way that is expected by the users of our services.

Technology tends to get more and more complex.  What does it mean for something to be complex? Well, this question is only able to be answered by the person who is the benefactor of our technology services. When we hear things like it isn’t ‘user-friendly’ or it’s ‘not easy to navigate’ or it’s just plain ‘clunky’ to use the cause of the dissatisfaction can often come from the underlying complexity.  While the designers and creators of the service may see it as very easy to use, the fact of the matter is that if our end-users don’t then it’s not. One place to look to resolve the experience paradox is whether the solution has issues of complexity.

This idea was reinforced while I was reading a very interesting description of the qualities of complex things. The description was part of an online course called The Big History Project.  In the course the authors posited three qualities that make some things more complex than others:

1.  Diverse ingredients: More complex things often have more bits and pieces, and those bits and pieces are more varied.

2. Precise arrangement: In simpler things it doesn’t matter too much how the ingredients are arranged, but in complex things the bits and pieces are arranged quite precisely. Think of the difference between a car and all the bits and pieces of that car after it’s been scrapped and is lying in a junkyard.

3. Emergent properties: Once the ingredients are arranged correctly, they can do things that they couldn’t do when they weren’t organized. A car can get you around; its component parts cannot. A car’s capacity to be driven is a quality that “emerges” once it’s been assembled correctly, which is why it’s called an “emergent property.”

The authors go on to state that, “complexity is fragile.”

“There’s another important thing to remember about complexity. Complex things need just the right ingredients and they need to be assembled in just the right way. So, complex things are usually more fragile than simple things. And that means that after a time, they fall apart. Death, or breakdown, seems to be the fate of all complex things.”

I believe these characteristics of complexity and the fragility of complexity should not be ignored if we want our technology solutions to succeed.  When we design systems to provide services to employees we need to ask questions about complexity.  Questions like:

1. Will complexity prevent the system from being embraced and used?

2. Is there a simpler way to accomplish the same solution? Do we really need all the ‘bits and pieces’ that make this system complex?

3. If complexity is necessary, can we more effectively design the user interface to make it easy or at least easier? Or, in other words, have we focused sufficient effort on the design of the ’emergent properties’ of the system so that the user of the service will recognize instantly the benefit to them?

4. Have the interfaces of the ‘ingredients’ been properly vetted? In many cases if we spend some time cross-examining the arrangement of the bits and pieces we discover that there is a simpler way to do the same thing.

5. Can we provide a good narrative coherence for the system that makes the end-user understand how to use the system and why it will help them without having to understand all of the complexity of how it works?

These questions and the answers are key to enabling the creation and deployment of technology services that will be quickly embraced and used.  Technology is always marching forward. As it does it tends to become more and more complex.  However, we must find ways to make those technologies less complex, even simplistic, in their use.  Providing solutions that are perceived as easy to use ultimately produces better service to end-users.

 

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