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The perils of riding the change curve

In what I'm going to describe as a guerilla information systems swoop, I sneaked into the office over the Christmas break and installed a new telecoms suite. I use the term telecoms suite rather than just telephone, because my new system does so much more than the old telephone. Not only does it have more function buttons than I have ever seen on a phone, it also integrates seamlessly with my iPhone, acts as a base station for 14 other dect phones (not sure where I'm going to put those yet), provides support for wired and wireless headsets and, most importantly of all, connects via Ethernet to my computer to integrate with my database software. In every measurable way it is light years ahead of my previous telephone.

So am I a happy boy? No, I am not. The instruction manual is 150 pages thick, and the instructions themselves were clearly not written by anyone who had either used the phone or was ever likely to. With every function I try program, the instructions constantly direct me to other pages forwards or backwards in the manual, so that I'm following breadcrumbs towards an elusive solution that may or may not exist. It took me the best part of a morning to work out how to use the wired headset. On my old phone, you plugged it in and, if somebody rang, simply pressed the headset button to answer and then to hang up. With the new phone I had to program this function myself. First I assigned it to the wrong set of function keys. It looked as though it was correct until I tried to answer the phone, and cut off the first four callers. A couple of hours later, I had answering the phone via the headset working, but not hanging up. And I haven't even looked at the wireless headset yet.

But it's the simple things that are really winding me up. I had to program in a function key to look at missed calls. The manual was surprisingly clear on how to do this. What it won't tell me is how to exit that screen. Every button I try results in dialling the last number I was looking at. On occasions that might be useful, but mostly I'd simply like to go back to the home screen.

Have I tried to integrate the phone with the computer yet? I am sitting here now, almost a month after the initial installation, with the Ethernet cable in my hand. Quite honestly, the computer is the last place I'm thinking of shoving the connector.

Talking to a colleague, it seems that this experience is not solely the preserve of telephones, and in fact can be the norm with any new technology. I am riding, I am reliably informed, the change curve: Any new product will be better than the one it replaces, and our expectations are naturally higher. But first we have to learn how to get the most out of it and, while we're learning, the performance will actually be worse than the technology it replaces. The danger is that, at this highly stressful point on the curve, we will rip out the new technology, eighty-six it, and go back to the old. But if we bear with it, and continue to learn, eventually the performance of the new will exceed the old, and we'll all be smug and contented.

I could point to several product categories in our industry where the change curve is so shallow that users enjoy the benefits almost from day one. PLCs are a great example. But there are many others where users go through real pain. So let me encourage all suppliers to assess the change curve associated with your own products, and ask how quickly those products can honestly be expected to meet user expectations.

Mark Simms, 20 January 2015

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