The ownership of IT

There has been a long-term trend of turning services into self-service and allowing the user to drive the process in many parts of the economy.

Automation of the processes has been accompanied by an externalisation of many parts of the underlying infrastructure. Many services are much easier and quicker as long as they work, but when they don’t the user experience can be very frustrating.

I like to travel by train, but one station I know now only has payment by mobile. The problem is that the car park is a not spot for my mobile carrier. Instead of a minute to put in coins it took me 10 minutes to pay by mobile. When I eventually found someone to contact to explain the issue, they just shrugged and appear not to have done anything.

Another example was an automated ticket machine that was running slow. I had 10 minutes to buy a ticket. It had been raining, and despite being undercover, the machine had water on the screen. It took six minutes to get to payment, only for the payment to be not working. I got the train by one minute without ticket, to be lectured about buying a ticket first.

Last year I spent six months disputing an underpayment in a hospital car park. I dropped a relative at the hospital and came to collect later. In all, I was on the grounds for two lots of 10 minutes. I received notification of a fine for not paying for a three hour stop. Six months later it was dropped when I got the photographic evidence. They had three ANR photos, two of me arriving and one leaving. I spent longer complaining than the time I supposedly parked. I have received no apology for them wasting my time.

Looking forward, in a world of the internet of things, who in organisational terms is responsible for the user experience when there is no end to end ownership of the infrastructure delivering that service?

On a recent concall with two former colleagues working in IoT projects, the governance of the IT service has proven to be the major stumbling block in building the business case and assessing the benefits of the proposed solutions. In the words of the old adage, if everyone is responsible, nobody is responsible.

For me, the concern is that if my recent examples above are replicated in many services, user frustration and poor experience may delay and hamper the uptake of potentially valuable services.   

Is there an opportunity here, to simplify people’s lives and take away the pain when things go wrong?

Try this example. It’s Wednesday evening and there is a power cut, which lasts for two hours. The following morning, the internet appears to be down. On looking, there are no lights lit on the hub. Change the fuse and it’s clear that the hub is dead. Call the service centre, it’s busy but allows ring back. 30 minutes later the phone rings, but picking up the phone near the hub, the call cuts off on lifting the phone. There is no number to call, it’s been blocked. Call the centre again, it’s busy. 20 minutes later, the phone rings. Pick up a different phone and the call is OK. New hub to be sent out by close of play Monday.

Later another call on the phone has the same dropped line problem. Later it dawns what the problem is. There are phones on different circuits in the house. The one in my study has a problem, but not the one in the kitchen. Fortunately, there is an electrician coming on Monday, who identifies a wiring problem and fixes it.

With deadlines to meet, the above is not helpful. I’ve had five years here with occasional glitches, but five days trying to resolve the problems and many hours of calls is a pain to a freelancer. It worked very well till it didn’t.

Imagine a home of the future with 100 or more connected appliances. I accept that no system can be fail safe, but at least can we think about how to safe fail? In the ‘everything connected’ world we are heading for, the ability to initiate the ‘restart my home’ routine without crazy overheads will determine the user acceptability.

Looking back at 60 years of ‘the future of the home’, the same ideas have been in the pipeline all this time. Domestic robots are now arriving, having been predicted in the 60s. Life’s too short to waste on fragmented, poorly integrated systems and services.

Now, imagine a hotel, hospital or office with 1,000s or 10,000s of connected devices. What could possibly go wrong?

If the home of the future is going to come any time soon, may I suggest ‘Support, Support, Support’ as the three priorities.

Comments (2)

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  • 1
    Andrew Baldwin wrote on 7th Sep 2017

    Interesting article.

    The unspoken driver behind the move to more "services" is one of cost cutting and blame shifting. Instead of employing a ticket person the phone based system (initially expensive) saves money [though you won't see that in reduced fares - the directors need their bonuses!!]. Additionally when things go wrong it's now YOUR fault - not the provider; and heaven help if you don't have a smartphone or the battery is dead.

    After 40+ years of working in IT I'm coming to the conclusion that the hype and promises grow daily but the utility and benefits to the ordinary person diminish rapidly.

    I'm not harking back to a golden age but low quality rushed to market offerings with poor security and ill-thought out failure modes seem to be getting more and more common.

    It's actually driving me to use LESS tech wherever I can and the attractiveness of cash is increasing; this may be less convenient for businesses but it works better for me as a customer. There are a couple of rally big names in the digital marketplace that won't be getting my custom ever again if I can help it -- I've never felt that way about a bricks and mortar supplier.

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  • 2
    Adrian Firth wrote on 29th Sep 2017

    You voice some frustrations that are not unique and you make some good points.

    I'm not sure I quite buy that "poorly integrated systems and services" is the root problem. The connected home for at least the next few decades (and probably a darned lot longer) is going to be brought about through add-ons. It isn't that homes are connected - stuff that's inside homes is being connected. We're not replacing old housing stock with futuristic and future-proofed accommodation.

    I think your final example, in which you highlight electrical gremlins, is where you put your finger on what I would say is the root of the issue. Not integration of systems and services, but very specifically reliance on infrastructure (often 'legacy' infrastructure). Once we realize that's the core problem it becomes apparent that this is a security-by-design [1] question: loss of underpinning infrastructure affected 'availability'. And that's how you circle back to 'safe fail'.

    This problem is endemic in product and service design. Donzal writing in Andress (2011) [2] described it as symptomatic of infosec focussing on "sexy" topics. VandenBrink (2010) [3] talked of the "neglect" associated with availability. Since the Mirai botnet, it should be very apparent that this cannot be ignored: everything else is for nought if you don't have availability. You could integrate 'til you're blue in the face, but you're still going to suffer that wiring problem*.

    Therein lies an interesting dilemma, which is not new [4], [5] and not unique to the IoT: " we consider the consequences of an innovation, we need to recognize that its benefits and risks are in large measure determined not by the choices people make about how to use it but by the infrastructure into which it is introduced."

    And, when we work out that one, we might become better able to embrace methods of solving in advance all the problems we're about to cause [6] when we apply traditional product design and marketing models to something that indeed radically alters the nature of humanity [7]. This is not a trivial issue: the IoT will itself become infrastructure [8].

    * This isn't a hypothetical for me, in fact, having recently lost a stretch of 25 year old circuit buried in the non-cavity brick walls of an extension on our 120 year old house; I'd dearly love to tear it all down and build from scratch, but it would seem an extreme measure in an otherwise perfectly serviceable building.

    [2] The Basics of Information Security: Understanding the Fundamentals of InfoSec in Theory and Practice, ISBN 978-1-59749-653-7
    [7] The zero marginal cost society: The internet of things, the collaborative commons, and the eclipse of capitalism, ISBN 978-1137280114

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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October 2017