Why over-promising on technology is always a bad idea

selling high techI sat with my doctor, as she logged into the NHS Choose and Book system. It’s a revolutionary new online tool that allows you to select a hospital appointment at the press of a button. “It’s so much easier,” she enthused, as she clicked her mouse and jabbed at the keyboard. Now I know a bit about this NHS IT system. You see, some time back, I wrote copy for a conference on the project. 500 pages of background reading later, I was turning into something of an expert. And I was beginning to understand that it might not deliver the goods.

The bigger they are…

The biggest IT project of its kind anywhere in the world, the documentation trumpeted. Totally secure and reliable. Now if you’ve been following the news, you’ll know that official data is never that secure. All it takes is a couple of clicks and 25 million records go missing. Not to mention the cost, where government IT systems have a very poor record indeed. In 2006, the government scrapped a system they’d commissioned for the Department of Work and Pensions. It would save £60m by 2008, they claimed. But when it was abandoned, the system itself had already cost £140m.


The most successful high-tech companies are the ones that never forget what’s really important about technology. The humans who use it. While I was at Microsoft, the marketing gurus came up with the simple but highly effective line Where do you want to go today? How could people fail to be engaged by that? Of course it’s very vague, but that’s why it works: it means something different to everbody, so it has universal appeal. Apple has done the same with its clever question Which iPod are you? (I’d like to think I’m a Nano, but if I’m honest, I’m more of a Shuffle.) At the end of the day, technology is just an add-on to the human experience. And the best systems are the ones that mirror how humans behave. That’s why social networking sites like Bebo, MySpace and Facebook have taken off: they directly reflect the way people interact with each other. And the systems that don’t mirror how humans behave tend to fail, whatever the marketing hype. So sending a text message from my phone to get my Sky+ decoder to tape a TV programme is a real plus. Humans forget things and like to send texts. But watching that same TV programme on the 2″ screen on my phone just isn’t going to happen. Because humans like slouching on the sofa with the remote in one hand and a bag of crisps in the other, watching their 42″ flat-panel TV.

Computer says no

Meanwhile back in the doctor’s office, it’s not looking good. “Oh dear,” says my doctor. “It says ‘waiting time unknown'”. Eventually, she gives up, and hands me a printout. I can log on myself to set the appointment, she tells me. So I do. ‘Waiting time unknown,’ it says again and again. Then I phone The Appointments Line. They take my details, and say they’ll send an email directly to the hospital to speed things up. Five days later, the hospital phones me and I get an appointment. It’s all set up in their system, which spews out a confirmation letter. A week later, I have another letter, this time from The Appointments Line. Their system shows that I haven’t yet made an appointment. A week later, I receive an identical letter. And then another. I try phoning them, but they’re experiencing ‘unusually high call volumes’, so I give up. And then this morning, another letter arrived.  I resolve to phone them, but just thinking about it is making me feel ill. And that’s the last thing I need.