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Systems in one form or another are or will soon be just about everywhere – in cars and trains, in radios and televisions, on your body (watches, phones, glasses), all around the home and on the street corner, in the “cloud”, and just about everywhere else but the kitchen sink (and maybe even there). Is this new “smartworld” getting easier or harder for us to live with?

Many of us now have multiple devices – desktop computers, laptops, tablets, a smartphone, a smartwatch, and sometimes other devices for work. Gartner is predicting the Internet of Things (IoT) will have 25 billion endpoints by 2020. If you aren’t readily accessible, people immediately think something is wrong.

If we can produce self-driving cars, why can’t we have friendly systems that help us to navigate the complexities of operating systems and the multiplicity of applications out there?

In other words, let’s ask:  Are systems in the Internet of Things world as friendly as they should (or could) be?

Learning what everything does and how to use it can be quite daunting, and it’s even worse when you don’t use a device or app very often, or heaven forbid, when something doesn’t seem to be working quite right.

I would claim that today’s systems generally do a mediocre to poor job of guiding users through the twists and turns of the digital society.  Most people aren’t computer experts!

Here’s a few simple examples:

Software patches – Microsoft can automatically patch your Windows PC, but what happens when they don’t install or work properly?  What should you do?  And what about hardware driver updates, application updates, using Flash, etc.  I’ve never tested it but I don’t think Apple’s Siri would be much help!

Disk/system failures – The day may come when your PC hard drive fails.  Some people faithfully back up all their data regularly, but others simply hope it will never happen.  Even if you have the data backed up, restoring PC applications is neither easy nor intuitive. Some day all apps may be “containerized” and much easier to move around, but that’s not the norm yet.  Other examples – your PC won’t shut down, your PC clock isn’t the right time, and so on.

Synchronization – Working with multiple devices may be getting easier but is not perfect yet, especially with “device diversity.” Keeping calendars and contact lists in sync on multiple devices from different vendors is tough (at least for me with Outlook + iCloud it is). I should be able to simply tell my system to review all appointments and sort out my calendars.

“Smart” phones – I have friends who resisted buying smartphones until very recently – for a long time they didn’t see a need for them.  When you do decide, however, how do you get started – there are data plans, app stores, multiple makes and models, constant updates, and always the possibility of extra charges? Even answering the phone by swiping a screen is not obvious to a novice! Friendly contextual help with “tell me how to do it” assistance should always be readily available.

A simple example:  I turned Siri on for the first time today. I had to Google search for instructions on how to actually use it.

Points of sale/service – People are often forced to conform to the logic of a transaction system.  For example, I was recently owed money for deposits made to a hospital, but was not able to get the refund until I had separately paid another balance – they were simply unable to create a net balance and refund the difference. Each transaction had to be a separate action, which to me was, and is, very customer unfriendly. If I didn’t happen to have the funds for the outstanding balance, then I would never have received the much larger refund. All in all, a very unfriendly system.

Interconnections – Many applications are now being connected – the basic email lists of a few years ago have now become cross-posting of news, Periscope links to Twitter, logging on with Facebook, and so on. Sometimes, we don’t know (or remember) that these links exist (and whether they are still working). It’s not easy to identify, track and control these links since every app has its own controls. If one isn’t working, how do I fix it? Very unfriendly, in my opinion.

Creating systems that are easy to use and basically foolproof has been an IT quest since the early days of computers, but the problem has never really been solved.  Systems can be very mysterious, especially for the casual user.

Here’s a few ways that designers have used to improve friendliness:

  • Good interface design – the most basic step is to make a user interface that is easier and more intuitive, especially for a self-serve system (anyone remember the text only green screens of the 1980s?); Automatic Teller Machines are one familiar example of this;
  • Help files – For example, in Microsoft Outlook 2013 there is a very small “?” that leads to a simple Help function; an easy to access Help File is a step towards increased friendliness, and now this can be cloud-based to expand its capabilities;
  • On-screen assistant – Microsoft tried an online assistant called Clippit to provide a friendlier interface to the Office help files;
  • Auto-correct – Smartphone apps can include auto-correction features to help with grammar and spelling – and we’ve all seen some of the amusing results in text messages;
  • Online search – most often Google or Bing are the go to sources for help of any kind (assuming you have Internet access, of course), and for many this is also a way to zero in on products support sites;
  • Voice-based interaction – talking to your systems is perhaps the most sophisticated way of making it friendly (as long as it’s also smart enough). Various examples exist – Siri, Cortana for Windows 10, Google Voice Search, Facebook M, and others;  the use of cloud-based artificial intelligence with smartphones to enhance friendliness is just beginning but is evolving rapidly;

It may soon be important to include a figure of merit for “friendliness” in systems designs, to develop measures of comparison, and even to embed friendliness metrics into service level agreements.

These are my thoughts.  Do you think systems need to be friendlier?  Can public clouds provide Friendliness-as-a-Service?

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