Forgiving Technology

Times have changed or evolved to put it in a different perspective. Mankind has an age old endeavour, how to make life simpler and better ( after making it complicated and worse). In the stone age the primary mode of survival was by hunting and human beings primarily developed tools aimed towards making that process simpler. Life moved on and our species figured out how to do agriculture. That was one major step in making life complicated. Agriculture needed people to settle down as it would take time for plants to grow. This obviously led to lot of lifestyle changes and human beings started creating next set of complications in their life. You would not have thought of checking email or writing a blog if you were busy with chasing wild animals or wild animals chasing you.
The next wave came few thousand years later. When we moved from a system of almost everyone doing everything ( unless you were a king ) to an era of specializations. You could survive just by putting a OK seal on a Nike shoe without ever knowing how leather is made (who the hell wants to know that anyway). This created another interesting opportunity for mankind to make things were a computer engineer then you could create buzz words like CORBA, OOPS, XML and scare the hell out of everyone around. If you were a doctor you can have some complicated names of diseases and lack of ability to pronounce these diseases correctly can itself be called another disease. So anyway things moved on. I am sure you are almost wondering by now if there is any co relation between the title of my article and content, so let us get back to the real issue.
Technology is primarily about building these complications and their solutions and building forgiving technology is all about building e technology in such a way that all the complications are hidden from the end user. So let us look at some stone age tools. These tools were simple and they did the work they were meant for. They never published a user manual on how to use them and never gave you a shock if you did not use them in the prescribed way. But now you might argue that this was primarily because these tools accomplished very simple tasks. This is precisely where I beg to differ my fellow earthians ( not sure if that is even a word ). I think that lot of people building the technology are just not able to put themselves in their customer shoes which come in a wide variety of sizes and colors. They always assume a user manual or basic framework of assumptions and fall flat on face when the technology gets used in an out of the box manner. So long live the example of washing machines being used as Lassi maker in Punjab . I am sure the washing machine makers never thought of this usecase while building it.
So next time you are building any piece of technology, just imagine that there is no user manual. Just get NUM ( No User Manual ) principle embedded in your psyche. If you are software developer writing code to add two numbers do not forget the case where both the inputs might be perfectly right but the sum might still have an integer overflow. If you are a restaurant owner it is a better idea to label what is salt and what is pepper after all how many people can guess it based on the number of holes. So the idea is very simple that understand your user very well, the smartest one and the dumbest one also ( both might correspond to the same human being in some cases ). And always ensure that you forgive them for all their mistakes after all you as a technology builder is existence because you have users. Your life is not worth a meaning without that user set.

Happy Forgiving Technology Building……


  1. gr8 article!!! I mean we can associate a whole lot of companies which are now a days trying to address similar issues. is setting new standards for others, i guess this is really good in terms of catering to specific city.

    really appreciable!!!

  2. Mervi: I guess hiding things from users or showing them is a function of medium also. There are some mediums like web where you can be more expressive compared to medium like USSD where you might have to make a choice on behalf of the user by making some assumptions. Since we work across all the mediums, we need to make these calls on a day to day basis.

  3. Hey Birla,

    Do you know another wonderful use case of Washing Machine – Cleaning potatoes – Yes, people were
    cleaning potatoes in rural China, and Haer was getting a lot of support/fix calls. It took Haer
    a while to find out the so called culprit.

    I disagree with the usage of word DUMBEST in the comment “understand your user very well, the smartest one and the dumbest one also “. Don’t you think so-called DUMBEST users (I should infact call them customers to cover all industries) are the ones who really drive the busiesses. Imagine, if everyone were an Einstein, then they
    would build their own nuclear powered car, and no GM/Ford would have born. Dumbest is a relative term.

    Some of the ideas – 3M’s post-it – were labelled as DUMBEST in 3M’s internal meetings, but became of
    the most selling products. 🙂

  4. Hi There again.

    Regarding your comment on pepper and salt dispensers, ” If you are a restaurant owner it is a better idea to label what is salt and what is pepper after all how many people can guess it based on the number of holes.”

    Do you think a restauranteur might want to have same type of dispenser (same number of holes) to lower cost and inventory. For example, owner
    has 12 tables, so restauranteur may need to buy 12 * 2 = 24 + 4 (in case some break) = 28 of one type. Instead of buying 12 + 2 = 14 of each type.
    In case three of salt ones break (more chances because people use more salt), (s)he now must buy new salt ones, and his 2 pepper ones will be idle.

    It is a classic case of Southwest airlines (in US) vs rest of the crowd – Southwest (SWA) had (still has) same type of fleet (I believe
    all Boeings instead of some Airbus, some Boeing, and some McDonnell Douglas) so SWA could lower its inventory cost of spare parts, as well as
    personnel cost because it needed only technicians for one type of aircrafts, rather than Delta/United/NWA etc. who used to have more spare parts,
    and more technicians.


    Just another way of thinking…your original thought is also quite reasonable

  5. Great Post – keep it up 🙂 If you don’t mind me asking, which theme do you have at the moment? Its a great design and I would like to know if others can use it.

  6. @A Gupta: Good to know about your move back to India. I am sure Asklaila will certainly help you in settling down 🙂

    Washing machines for potato peeling sounds like a great idea as long as you are not the guy on IFB support line.

    As far as the usage of word dumbest, I have no dis-respect for those people. Just emphasizing the fact that when some people come up with ideas which are so new and different from standard assumptions, that is what they get branded as. You have pointed out great examples on that.

    On the salt and pepper example, I found out an easy way to solve the labeling problem. Write a text on a piece of paper and stick it on with a cello tape. Easy way to fix damaged labels. BTW, I do run two restaurants in Bangalore and some of these ideas were born more out of necessity 🙂

  7. Hey There, I have to say, that I lover your blog.
    Please go on like that and don’t stop posting. I hope this comment motivates you to do so, smile
    regards, kali

  8. Hi.. its nice.. technology making the human works simple. still there are more improvement by the technology can make articles on that.


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