The blog I've always dreamed of writing, written.

Seeing the System for the Trees

In software, we have a terrible habit of making attribution errors. The priests in the temple know what’s best, because we’re in the best position to understand the system. We created it, after all - so we know how it should work. Maybe we’re a little idealist in that regard, but we’re certainly letting our ego run away with the truth here.

Here’s how this problem manifests itself:

It seems like users are mis-using feature XYZ compared how we designed it. They keep getting really angry about it and are making a big stink. I don’t understand, because they wouldn’t have that problem if they just used it right.

This is commonly called blaming the user. It’s not all that different than blaming the victim.

We have a lot of trouble seeing that while the system was made one way, it was still made by people. It was made by us. If there is responsibility for the system having a bad result for some of our users, it belongs to us.

People do unexpected things, and for unexpected reasons. Humans are unpredictable this way. We’re curious. We’re distracted. We’re forgetful. We’re hasty. Any and all of these factors mean that if something can be done wrong, you can guarantee that it will.

Many times, the root of the problem is that we don’t factor in all the competing goals that people have when using our designs, or our systems. All those traits about being curious, distracted, etc… are going on all at the same time. We’re not perfect automatons doing every action in precisely the proper order. It’s the System that works this way, not the human.

It’s not just software. It’s there any time you see someone sharing sentiment like this:

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Right there. Any time you see “it’s not the system, if people would just… (insert behavior that would avoid a problem), then we wouldn’t be in this pickle.”

Here’s another example. There’s a dangerous intersection in my town that creates lots of accidents. I’m not sure why the vintage of the bad design matters, but Karen seems to think so.

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Maybe it’s just the first reaction of the uninformed, but the only way to reduce accidents (and their severity) is to get people to slow down. This intersection is like a 4-lane highway, where people rocket thru at 60+ mph.

Somehow, the people are the problem. #SMH We’re easily blinded by our own experiences, but it doesn’t take a lot of work to see it’s the outcome that matters. And there are clear factors on both sides of these debates. Yes, if people drove differently, there wouldn’t be these accidents. But people drive like they drive. The resulting accidents are influenced by both the people and the intersection.

The system is just as responsible for the results as are the actors. When you’re responsible for the system, you can’t afford to only look at the costs, or the market environment, or the strategy, or the engineering - you need to remember that the system exists to serve people. And if people are being harmed as a result of using it, then you’re responsible for that harm.

Brian Duchek