Eight or so years ago, I found myself at a software developer event organised by the US company Twilio. If you are not familiar, Twilio provide software that allows other people building apps to connect their products and services to the telephone system. They enable you to integrate with voice and text messages without the heavy lifting of telephone lines and private exchange integration.

The Twilio CEO and co-founder Jeff Lawson came on stage at the London hotel where the event was hosted and did the Silicon Valley Developer Speech. He talked about successes and numbers and new features that were coming our way soon. The most significant reaction he got from the UK audience puzzled me and has remained with me ever since.

Up until that point, UK customers had only been able to use Twilio with an “01-” or “02-” number at the front end. In the UK we have an often misunderstood telephone numbering system where numbers beginning “01-” or “02-” indicate a “geographic” (i.e. traditional fixed-line) phone, those beginning “07-” are associated with mobile phones and “08-” are reduced cost or free numbers.

The problem that those software devs had been having using Twilio was one of learned technology behaviour. Lots of people had learned that you could only send a text message to a mobile phone. Therefore, you could only send a text message to a number that began “07-“. Twilio only offered numbers beginning “01-” or “02-” and as a result, lots of people wouldn’t send texts to those numbers that Twilio provided because they didn’t think it would work.

The big cheer Jeff got in the room was when he announced that his service would offer “07-” number from that point onwards.

It’s a fascinating insight into how ordinary people use (or don’t use) technology. It’s entirely possible to send text messages to a landline number. In the early 2000s, the giant UK telecoms company BT spent time and effort recruiting actor and former Dr Who Tom Baker to be the (somewhat hammy) voice of landline SMS. But the message didn’t get through to everyone, and it continues to impact how people use software and services significantly.

The “07-” example is in no way a unique case. Dozens of Lay Technology Folklore examples dictate how businesses and individuals use and abuse technology.

Meanwhile, technology does not necessarily get used in the ways in which technologists and technology companies expect; moreover, there are things about how technology gets used that are out of the providers’ sight.

A formerly familiar sound in railway stations and airports were the delightful clacking noises that split-flap display boards would make as they updated. Mechanical devices have a horrible habit of breaking, and so in recent years, the flappy panels have been replaced in most places by digital signage. Terribly modern and terribly efficient.

But, as an old colleague of mine Tony Phillips noted, it’s led to an unfortunate set of interaction changes as people wait for trains and planes.

In the old world, people would stand on a station concourse, reading newspapers or books, and be alerted to updates by the clacking every so often. They’d look up, check the display, and then either head off for their departure or return to their reading.

Today, however, we have to stare at the screens intently without auditory cue, waiting for news of our departure platform.

The noise wasn’t by design; it was a by-product of the mechanism. Nobody thought to observe behaviours before station management ripped out the boards and installed the screens. The user experience suffers dreadfully as a result. Every time I’m stuck at Waterloo Station, I fret about this observation.

We tend to think of technology as predictable and approach it as an engineering problem. But how an ecosystem of software, people, behaviours, processes, customer experiences and culture all intertwine within a business is far more complex. If it’s a STEM subject at all its more like biology than engineering.

This is exacerbated by the organisational desire that seems to be so prevalent (particularly in cultures dominated by monotheistic religions, perhaps?) to find ONE TRUE PATH TO SOLVE EVERYTHING.

Whether it’s Lean or Project, Agile or indeed Design Thinking, we seek to solve complex problems with over-simplification. If you follow the instructions, things will turn out fine. While one approach might work at a granular level so that a piece of furniture can be assembled from IKEA by following the pictograms, it won’t work at a macro level. The Swedish furniture company’s full supply chain can’t be distilled into a few A4 pages of simple diagrams.

The complexity of technology and people interaction will increase in the years ahead, layering legacy systems with legacy behaviours with legacy misconceptions. Organisations, I believe, need to stop thinking that ultimately they can intelligently design their way out of this complexity. Instead, we need to think about fostering evolutionary environments where technology and interactions can successfully evolve and mature.

We need to work out when we need linear paths to deliver things, and when they need to be iterative. We need to understand that often the software will be the thing duplicated from business to business. The approaches we need to take for adoption are contextually unique. We also need to understand in this socio-technical evolutionary soup from which mutations we need to protect ourselves.

There isn’t one true way to follow to success. Just following Edison or Ford or Jobs or Musk’s actions won’t allow you to gain their wealth and fame. Our response to how people and technology actually interact with one another needs to be adaptive. We need to adopt approaches that are appropriate in the right context. We need to learn to assess how and what to do when.

We shouldn’t be looking to intelligently design our organisations and technology. We instead need to create the best environments for them to mutate and evolve successfully and positively.

I’ve been thinking about where the Play Matrix fits in the context of my work now and going forward. This is the first attempt to put it into that context. The book diving deeper continues to be a work in progress.

One thought on “Evolution, not intelligent design

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