Author: Steve Puddick

What does Google Search, Invoicing and Sandwiches have in Common?

Systems are all around us and we experience them everyday in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of contexts.

Everything is a system. Wikipedia defines a system as “a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole“.  Google search is a type of system.  Interpersonal interaction is a system.  Invoicing is a system. Even making a sandwich is a system.  Depending on the context, a system may have different names such as police interrogation protocol, computer programming algorithm, or business process. For the purpose of this post we will consider everything to be the abstract term of system.  If it can be expressed in a flow chart, it is a system.

When we want to get specific results or achieve a certain goal we (including myself) often only examine the main system we think is involved. Theoretically, we think if we follow those rules, we should get the intended outcome.  In reality, when it comes to real life implementations of our plan there are usually various systems interacting with our main system. Our plan doesn’t always get us the result that we want. In some cases, using another system altogether can allow us to achieve our goal much faster and easier.

Huh? What does this have to do with websites, web development, and web applications? Although this may seem like a very abstract concept and idea, the rationale behind every web service (not to be confused with ‘web services’ in software systems design) is to simplify an existing system which is usually outside of the realm of websites and web technology. Eventbrite simplifies the system of promoting an event and collecting ticket fees. Shopify simplifies the system of selling products. Facebook simplifies the system of experiencing social connectedness, and expressing positive in-group characteristics (among others).  Freshbooks simplifies the system of managing invoicing, and overall accounting.

Various apps and technology also aims to simplify some type of system. An alarm clock app simplifies the system of setting and managing alarms. A notepad application simplifies the system of…taking notes, a messenger app simplifies the system of communicating with people. A weight loss app simplifies the system of keeping on track with health goals.

Given this information, you can likely see how the abstract topic of ‘systems’ fits in with a blog about web technology and it is an important topic to discuss.  By viewing everything as a system we can start to see new perspectives. We start to see possible flaws in our approach to achieving a goal, we can see new ways of improvement, or we can see new approaches altogether which may work better.

If we are in pursuit of any goal we need to examine all the rules of the systems we are using, as well as related systems, regardless of whether they seem relevant to the task at hand.  It can sometimes be an unlikely system that is interacting with the ones we have considered that is causing us to not get the results we want. In other cases, there are systems which we have not even considered which can lead us to our goal easier and faster.

To further illustrate this concept and to provoke thinking in this way, we have assembled some examples to be analyzed. Some of these examples deal with systems in the realm of technology, some of them don’t.  Some of these examples may seem common sense, some may not.  But, by following these examples you should be able to understand the power of analyzing the various systems at play when pursing a goal.

A few notes about these examples:

  • what the goal is may be different depending on the perspective of the people involved. A single perspective has been chosen in order to keep these examples simple and short.
  • the systems in these examples have been simplified and in some cases, only sub goals are discussed. Again, this keeps the examples simple and short
  • You may be very familiar with, or an expert in some the examples discussed. Overall, I am confident the general idea in the examples are correct. However, if you do notice any errors the the facts mentioned, you are welcome to mention them in the comments 🙂

 

1. Toll Free 1-888 numbers

When 1 -888 numbers first rolled out in 1996, the  rationale was that 1-800 numbers were running out and phone companies needed something else.  However, businesses and organization started  to worry that people may not know whether they have a 1-800 number or a 1-888 number.  Many businesses and organizations made sure they had both a 1-800 and 1-888 number.  The plan phone companies had to use 1-888 numbers to solve the problem of limited 1-800 numbers was not very effective.

Examined Systems Neglected Systems Overall Effect
Adding 1-888 numbers to the bank of possible toll free numbers will increase the overall amount of toll free number available. Businesses usually want to ensure that customers can always easily contact them, and can go to extreme measures. 1-800 and 1-888 numbers were both being registered by businesses and organizations, negating the effect of adding 1-888 numbers to the bank.

 

2. High Performance Video Cards

There are various characteristics which make a high quality video card for a computer. For people who may not be familiar with this, a video card is a part inside of a computer which allows 3D games to display smoothly with a very high level of detail. Lower quality cards can be choppy and can only show low quality detail.  The RAM is a characteristic which plays a part in the overall quality of a card. These come in various amounts:  1GB, 2GB, 3GB, and so on. A higher amount of RAM does not automatically indicate a more capable or higher quality card.  However, what many video card manufacturers found  was that consumers were purchasing cards based on the RAM count. Many consumers assumed that higher RAM meant higher quality.  I would imagine this is because RAM is an easily comparable metric, and most consumers don’t have in depth hardware engineering knowledge.  In order to remain competitive, many video card manufacturers started to beef up the RAM on their cards even when it wasn’t really doing much to increase performance. It was like putting the engine of a Toyota Camry into the car body of a Ferrari.

Examined Systems Neglected Systems Overall Effect
Many consumers want high quality products. Consumers will buy products based on perceived value, not actual value. Consumers were buying video cards based on RAM rather than actual quality.

 

3. Social Media Profiles

Social media profiles, such as for Facebook or Twitter are very common today. They are designed to promote a business or organization, engage with customers, communicate promotions, and increase brand awareness, among many other uses.  At first glance, it can seem like social media profiles are fantastic and everyone should sign up for as many as possible to maximize the amount of reach.  However,  if poorly managed, an organization or business can end up with ‘ghost town’ social media profiles.  This is where the latest content can be 3 months old and the profiles themselves are sparsely populated.  This can give the impression that your business or organization is very disorganized and possibly even leave customers and potential customers wondering if you are even still in business.

Examined Systems Neglected Systems Overall Effect
Social media profiles can enhance a business overall in many ways. When social media profiles are neglected it can cause the business or organization to be perceived negatively. The reputation of the business or organization is harmed.

 

4. Focusing Too Much on Web Technology

Let’s use an imaginary business for this example: XYZ clothing. XYZ clothing is a boutique clothing store that sells winter outerwear. They have one retail store and it is located in Jamaica. The owners of the store have heard a lot about web technology and social media. They have a great website which has been optimized for search engines and a solid, well maintained social media presence.

Sales are not very good at all and they would like sales to increase.  They frequently analyze web traffic analytics and social media analytics to see what impact changes to their online presence has on overall business.  They also constantly makes SEO tweaks to try and rank as high as possible in search engine results. They are even doing A/B testing on their email newsletter to see which layout offers the most exposure. With all of their adjustments they are seeing a very slight change in sales.

As you can likely already see, XYZ clothing is focusing too much on web technology and web analytics and is really missing the big picture: Nobody want to buy winter clothing in Jamaica! Sometimes we can get so caught up in the latest web tools or services that we forget the basics. Even in the age of the internet, businesses and organizations still need to make sure their business is going in the right direction. This means periodically examining your business from a foundational level, and then moving towards any web technology which may help.  This example also demonstrates the importance of ensuring that traditional marketing efforts are not being ignored. The example discussed is extreme, but some businesses and organizations may be in a similar scenario, to varying degrees.

Examined Systems Neglected Systems Overall Effect
Social media profiles can enhance a business overall, in many way. A business needs to offer a service or product customers want. The business has very poor sales because they don’t offer a product people want.

 

5. HIV/AIDS in Africa

HIV/AIDS in Africa is a serious problem. Many efforts have been made by various organizations to try and slow the spread of this disease in this continent. The use of condoms is, theoretically in this case, a great way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other STDs.  Condoms have been widely distributed in Africa and various educational programs are also in place as to how to use them. Together, this seems like a great plan to combat the disease.

Unfortunately, there is another phenomenon at play as well. When it comes to specific real life scenario when a condom should be used, it turns out that using a condom yourself or asking your partner to use a condom implies one of you has, or think you have  HIV/AIDS. Due to this underlying insinuation, many people in Africa still do not use condoms.

I learned about this phenomenon from a TED talk feature Bill and Melinda Gates: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSL-iIskEFU

Examined Systems Neglected Systems Overall Effect
Education and distribution of condoms should ultimately reduce HIV infection rates. There is an underlying insinuation that one partner has HIV/AIDS if using a condom is proposed. People in Africa were still not using condoms.

 

6. Cutting Down Tree Analogy

Imagine John needs to cut several trees down at his cottage to clear an area.  John decides to use an axe.  John is a few hours into his task while he is discussing and debating with his friends and family (who are helping)  as to what the best technique is. They are debating what the best angle of swing is, how often to sharpen the blade, what the best form is, etc.  Meanwhile, John’s neighbour has decided to use a chainsaw to clear a similar sized area. He/She is getting the job done much faster and is not concerned with the angle of swing, how often to sharpen, or best form since it is not relevant to the tool he/she is using.

Examined Systems Neglected Systems Overall Effect
 An axe is used to chop trees down. A chainsaw is a faster, more effective tool for chopping down a large number of trees. An axe is a much more time consuming and difficult method.

 

7. Late Buses

Many of us have been there. We have an important meeting to get to, or an examination to write and our bus is late.  A group of transit users slowly starts to accumulate at the bus stop. No one is talking to one another but they are all thinking the same thing: when is this bus going to get here?! It is 10:50AM and the bus finally arrives, even though it should have been there at 10:30AM.  One or two people scold the bus driver, telling him/her that they have made them late for an important meeting. The bus driver says nothing and continues on with the duties of driving the bus.

There could by many scenarios playing out here.  Take this sample scenario with bus A and bus B:  Bus A is scheduled to be at the bus stop for 10:30AM. Bus B, the following trip, is scheduled to be there at 11:00AM.  Bus A is having engine problems and is not able to operate, or perhaps the driver for bus A doesn’t show up for work. The driver for bus B realizes that there will be no bus to pick up the passengers for the 10:30AM time. The driver for bus B decided to cut their morning break short by 10 minutes to try and limit how long the passengers have to wait, to try and help them out. Bus B arrives 10 minutes earlier than scheduled. The driver is greeted with disgruntled passengers who dump their anger and frustrations onto them for, from their perspective, being 20 minutes late.

Examined Systems Neglected Systems Overall Effect
Buses should arrive at their scheduled times Individual buses can be late or early. This is independent of buses following and preceding them. Bus driver B is getting scolded for something he/she was not at fault for.

 

Conclusion

Usually in school we specialize in one, maybe 2 disciplines. These disciplines usually only teach a single, or narrow array of systems, and how goals should be achieved in that realm.  There are also systems of doing things which may have been taught to us from work colleagues or mentors.  In the real world, there are all sorts of systems interacting and all sorts of disciplines which make up successful projects – whether that be in the field of web or not.  Regardless of the nature of the project, it is important to take into account as many systems as possible in order to truly understand what is happening.  When you truly understand what is happening, it is much easier to take the optimal path to achieving a goal.  In web, we have various systems which make up a successful project: computer programing, marketing, graphic design, information architecture, usability, and others. Although each project usually has an emphasis just a few systems, it is important to consider all of the disciplines which make up a successful project.