What's the Biggest Technology Challenge? People!

By Samuel Greengard Print this article Print
People Challenge Technology

There's a big difference between how a system is supposed to work and how people actually use it. Understanding human behavior is key to successful technology.

By now, there should be no shred of doubt that the biggest obstacle to successful technology adoption is people. We're a lot better at inventing technology and tossing into the wild than using it effectively.

The latest example? Google's Self-Driving Car (SDC).

The New York Times reports that the Google vehicle (in reality, a small fleet of vehicles) actually works a bit too well. The biggest safety challenge it faces is people. The car can detect and avoid contact with other vehicles. It can stop at crosswalks and spot pedestrians. It can even navigate around obstacles on the road.

Consider this: When operating in self-driving mode, Google's SDC has tallied upward of 1 million miles without causing a collision. It uses cameras, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) and GPS to navigate autonomously.

However, the vehicle runs into problems when it encounters human drivers—which are obviously unavoidable. There have been about two dozen minor incidents with people, including some SDCs being rear-ended and side-swiped.

When Google first introduced the car in 2009, The New York Times article reports, it couldn't get through a four-way stop sign because the sensors waited for other vehicles operated by humans to stop completely. As drivers inched forward and rolled through intersections, the robotic sensors froze.

Most recently, a motorist rear-ended a Google vehicle when it attempted to stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk, as prescribed by law.

These problems aren't limited to the Google SDC. The story also notes that motorists frequently turn off lane departure warning systems because they fail to use their blinkers and then the system beeps, thus becoming an annoyance.

Google's SDC software chief Dmitri Dolgov said that humans need to be "less idiotic."

Zero chance of that happening anytime soon.

The task, then, is to devise software that takes human behavior into account, which—on top of all of the other issues—varies by culture. Anyone who has ever driven in Italy knows that the rules and behavior of motorists there are much different than they are in Germany, Singapore or the United States.

Within the enterprise, the same rules of the road apply to IT systems. There's a big difference between how a system is supposed to work and how employees and customers actually use it. Moreover, every new or improved technology solution brings a plethora of unintended consequences.

The bottom line? Understanding human behavior and how people interact with systems and user interfaces is at the center of successful technology.

This article was originally published on 2015-09-14
Samuel Greengard writes about business and technology for Baseline, CIO Insight and other publications. His most recent book is The Internet of Things (MIT Press, 2015).
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