Stories have the power both to help us reinforce our beliefs and to appreciate different points of view. The failure depicted in the story I’m about to tell you is quite graphic, and therefore it’s easier to understand what went wrong. I should also mention ahead of time that I don’t remember the story well, I’m not sure who told it to me — and frankly, I’m not sure if it’s even true.
Because the events in this post are unsubstantiated, we have used fictional names for both ports and countries. Any resemblance to reality is purely coincidence.
Once upon a time in the Port of Hamburg, around 2008, when the first electronic devices — specifically those that were larger than smartphones, also known as tablets — began appearing on the market, an executive with Hamburg’s Port Authority requested to develop a new solution for managing the containers in German ports. It looked to avoid logistical delays and subsequent wasted time and resources of the containers due to poor planning.
In short, the goal was to optimize operations and to make use of redundancy.
To meet this objective, a Port Authority official overseeing the operations looked to team up with another organization for help. He contacted a software development agency that we might say had a good reputation, but was still not widely known; the goal was to develop an accessible and intuitive application for tablets. It was be expected that victory in this project would ensure their efforts could be remembered as an enviable success story.
A few months of dedicated work in the software company’s modern offices was enough time to finish application development. Later, after various demonstrations of the program’s flawless execution of the system requirements, the Port Authority official in charge of the project approved plans to begin using the code in the Port of Hamburg, with the intention to later expand usage throughout the entire German territory.
(…) victory in this project would ensure their efforts could be remembered as an enviable success story.
A few weeks after beginning the pilot to use the application in the port, the distinguished official traveled to the port to check in on how his effort was being adopted and integrated into the processes of the port. Here it fits to mention that the cost of the application represented a significant investment. Demonstrating the application’s successful adoption in the port was necessary for the project’s success, so as to justify the expense and validate the official’s excellent project management.
Finally, the official meets with the port leader in charge of the boots-on-the-ground operations. The official asks, smiling, how the workers liking the new application.
“I’m sorry, but they’re not using it,” the port leader responded to the public official.
“We spent €300,000, and they’re not using it? I demand explanation immediately!” responded the official who had overseen the development of the application.
“The worker’s union in the port refused, they said it violates the worker protection standards they had agreed to,” the port leader responded curtly.
“But,” gasped the official, “how can that be?”
“The worker protection standards indicate the employees must use a specific type of authorized gloves that are resistant to the cold, abrasion or tears. The touch screens of the tablets don’t work with the gloves the employees use,” the port leader responded. “You must understand that in Hamburg, with the workers being so close to the water, they can face a wind-chill as low as -20 C°. There’s no chance they’ll give up the gloves. Forget about it.”
The application essentially became worthless. While the official tried to grasp what had happened, he couldn’t help blaming the agency and revile those he viewed responsible for the failure… all the while watching workers unload a container that had recently arrived from China with hundreds of tablets acquired by the Port Authority.
The “success case” of the project did end up being a case worth remembering, though noteworthy because it lacked success.
The unfortunate event can be summarized as follows:
Here we see a clear difference between functional and usable software. Code can work perfectly, but if it’s not usable, it has zero value. Could the value of a product be intrinsically tied to its usability? Clearly, if code isn’t usable, it has no value. But might that mean we can also say that the more usable an application is, the more valuable it is?
What failed in this case? A lack of empathy among disparate teams, a failure to understand users, an omission of testing the application’s usability… maybe they could have contracted Overactive… I didn’t visit Hamburg.
One of the pillars of designing user experience is the process itself. A process centered on users always gives usability the utmost importance, and validating that same usability begins even before development. A process based in Design Thinking implies observation, definition, ideation, prototyping and validation. If developers invest in this work, and apply these processes for the creation of their products and services, incidents like the Port of Hamburg won’t happen… at least not as often.