You think that users are faceless objects? You are obsolete!

IT departments fail us because they are founded on the technocratic imperative. Users are faceless objects for which the system is designed (Iivari et al., 2009). Correspondingly, usability is a secondary feature at best. I challenge you: ask your IT department whether the users are consulted regarding the user interface before the design, during the design, after the design, or never?

In The Web is killing database systems, I stressed that IT departments are just replacing the clerks responsible for keeping the books of the organization. They are data-centric. As long as the data is safe, they do not care about the software. They only care about data security and integrity. They will happily manage backups and prevent unauthorized employees from accessing the data. In other words, IT departments exist to alleviate the fears of the organization: fear that the data might be lost or that the data might be hacked. Their problem is that companies like Google are also quite good at that sort of thing, and Google does it automatically.

Recently, Laval University launched a new web site where students can register for courses. The cost: over $20 million. To most web developers, this is a ridiculous amount of money. It is enough to pay for a small army for a year. How many of these $20 million went for user testing or for an usability study? Probably none.

Frustrated by the poor usability, a  21-year-old part-time student wrote a new front-end for the site called  Pilule.  The young author supports the site directly from his Twitter account.

Can you guess what the Laval University IT department did? Remember they are data and fear centric. They began by blocking the site on campus. Alas they also realized that most students access the Internet outside of the campus. At this point,  they made a mistake: they reached out to all students, telling them not to use Pilule, citing security concerns. The user revolt became undeniable and the University eventually had to allow Pilule back.

It is a fascinating story because it shows that our software is getting so good that mere users can take over the IT departments, even in its most sophisticated functions. One might object that Pilule does not have to manage the back-end. But cloud computing enables anyone to build a scalable distributed database in mere minutes.

Many functions such as mail or publishing, are already handled by the users with the help of companies like Google or Facebook. The trend is clear. Resistance is futile, IT departments are doomed. But something stronger is true: the technocratic imperative is dying. Anyone who thinks that users are faceless objects is obsolete.

Note: I have met a lot of people working in IT who are charming and extremely clever. A lot of them are very concerned by usability. They will keep having great jobs where they will earn more than I do. But their current incentives are just wrong. They are rewarded for spending a lot of money. They are not rewarded for pleasing the users. (Regarding the competence of the Laval University IT department: it is quite telling that they could not find a way to silently disrupt a front-end web site like Pilule.)

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

One thought on “You think that users are faceless objects? You are obsolete!”

  1. Thank you very much for your blog, However I kindly disagree with you after being an IT professional for more than 15 years, I’ve recently earned my MSc from a known university and unfortunately I was very poorly turned down when I tried to provide them with a proposal to improve their Unix infrastructure. In the real world such talents are normally accepted and embraced by the employer, however most universities are very close to let students interfere with the infrastructure that has been defined by rules and regulations that are much bigger than a normal IT department.

    They should have allowed pilule in the first place and provide the young author the ability and support, This issue has nothing to do with IT departments it’s in fact a world wide issue that universities lack to support innovators such as the young author you described in your blog.

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