No Excuses

4 minute read

While visiting The Good Home exposition in Aalst, I had a great chat with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino and Dries De Roeck about the intersection of design, technology and care in the home. Although it only hit me while listening to her during the tour of the exposition, I found myself once again confronted with this thing that has been bothering me on and off for quite some time now.

Meet Radio Me

“a service that let’s elderly people leave voice messages that are received as audio messages on Whatsapp, Line or any other messaging service by their adult children. They then send a voice message back which appears as a blinking light, like those of answering machines in the 1990s.The product uses a push-to talk interface to make it easy to use.”

And behold Komp

“a one-button computer designed to enable frequent and easy communication with family and friends. A network of family and friends use a mobile app to send messages and photos, or to video call. Kom presents this content in readable typography, high resolution and with good contrast. Komp is designed for people with no or limited digital skill, low motivation to learn, strongly reduced eyesight and reduced level of physical ability.”

Aaah, two beautiful examples of how rather simple Internet of Things applications can help bridge the gap between elders and their relatives. No more worrying about mom or dad, they are always just an instant message away. So nice!

Or is it?

On a bad day I call these products “providers of excuses for not really having to care” about some other person, in this case one’s elder mom or dad. This asynchronous, machine-in-the-middle communication may feel like it’s your greatest achievement in the relationship with your parents, but in reality you’re just saying “Oh, now what? Can’t you just leave me alone? I’m busy and everything else is more important than you.”

These products offer a way out, to avoid direct, human to human interaction. Now behold the elephant in the room: it’s actually thát human interaction that these elders are looking for; for you to stop by and spend a few minutes of your precious time, the only minutes of their time they are less alone.

Let’s take a step back and take a look at the bigger picture, at the actual root cause of this mess: technology. Technology should never be a driving force when developing products. It’s not because we can do something with technology, that we should do it. Products, and any kind of solution we like to build with our beloved technology, should be build because it’s actually needed.

Let me illustrate this with a professional anecdote: at a certain company a project was started to create an online, interactive Q&A system for their customers, using the latest agent-driven frameworks. About 5 people worked on this for over 2 years. That’s 10 man years! When the solution finally went live, they had to wait for several days before the first actual customer tried to use it.

Apparently no one had bothered to validate the actual business case, blinded by the latest and greatest wonders of technology. In the end the simplest, cheapest and by far best solution, would have been a telephone assigned to some knowledgeable employee who would have to answer a call every few days. Even if this was the only thing this person would have to do, the development budget alone would have provided him with a nice salary for at least 10 years.

As an added bonus, both the employee and the customer would have had a nice, synchronous, human-to-human talk, with a high chance of a better outcome than with the automated system.

We really must stop lying to ourselves and shouldn’t let technology be in the driving seat when it comes to developing new products. Especially not when these products actually provide us with excuses for less human-to-human interaction. Because, if that’s the road ahead, we have surpassed the pinnacle of evolution, and are actually going backwards, dehumanising ourselves and becoming actually obsolete.

So I, for one, will not accept jobs that result in or contribute to products that will provide people with excuses to be less human. Even more so, I will not only say no to this kind of projects, but will clearly state to the client why I don’t want to take on the job and why I think that he shouldn’t pursue such a product. And because I believe that even in these bad products a good product can be found, I will even try to come up with a possible redefinition without excuses.

I’ll try…

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