Systems should serve people, not the other way around

AC/DC put it succinctly in the title of their song, “Who Made Who?” Later in the song, the lyric “who turned the screw” fits the thesis I’d like to explore pretty well, too.

From the Merriam Webster definition of System

“d : a group of devices or artificial objects or an organization forming a network especially for distributing something or serving a common purpose 

Systems surround us, especially the designed networks rapidly replacing naturally occurring phenomena that might once have been the primary driver of human choices. Weather systems can still pack a punch, but a typical modern person on a typical day can live almost completely oblivious to heat, cold, and moderate precipitation.

It is man-made systems that increasingly dictate to the people who use them. The financial system, health care systems, your cellular provider’s system, our highway system: how much of modern life could continue unimpeded without these conveniences?

A question I’ve found myself asking far too often of late is this:

When did the systems humanity designed become master of almost every human action?

Not simply “who made who?”, then, but also “who’s in charge here?”

One example is the “medical care allocation” system. I find that label a bit more accurate than “health care” for the system because, well, there are non-medical motives that determine what is done for its human recipients. Limiting access to the scarce service of medical aid may be necessary, but any injured person who’s ever sat in an Emergency Room suffering can see that fear of spending too much money matters more, there, than easing pain or making frightened people feel better.

My elderly parents have health care through one of the world’s biggest health management organizations. It is large, and it dictates absolutely what care they can access and exactly how they can do so. Unless they type in their seven (?) digit ID number and work their way through a telephone triage nurse, they can’t even leave a message for the providers they’ve chosen within the closed system network.

The HMO campuses are large, modern, and often offer many services at one convenient location, but, to me, as an outsider, they also feel regimented and prison-like. The huge parking lots force me to walk long distances after dropping off my ailing parent and finding a spot for the car. I’ve got mild mobility issues, but I’m not eligible for a handicapped parking placard. I will be in pain by the time a day at these offices is done, and maybe before it even begins.

For the convenience of “the system,” I usually find Mom still held up at a registration kiosk much like an airport check in counter when I make it inside the clinic. She’s taken a number and waits her turn. Regardless of how ill she may be, her time and physical energy are less important than the system’s efficiency score that keeps patients waiting to save money on staff salaries.

Pile of moneyThe financial system is no better. We have money for one reason only: to make it easier for human beings to trade their goods and services. Its system has become a behemoth where some banks are “too big to fail,” and its appetites appear to matter more to our governments than the health and success of the citizenry does.

Isn’t that more than a little bit perverse?

I’m not an anarchist or a communist. I’m not suggesting an overthrow of systems that do serve to simplify sharing the world between many billions of people.

What I do demand, however, is more awareness of the fact that this is happening.

As an engineer, I say a design is bad if the user is forced into obscene contortions to use my product. The same is true here.

The thing we call medicine is there to serve sick people. It is up to the system to support the needs of the unwell. You can ask for good planning on the patient’s part at a scheduled wellness visit or physical, but stacks of paperwork for someone bleeding profusely is, frankly, wicked.

Airport security can be viewed through the same lens. We do need some scrutiny there, of course, but there is no use for an airport without passengers. The security system is there to serve the needs of the traveling public. If people of all abilities are going to be forced to disrobe, there should be seating and bins well in advance of the screening and conveyances to shift objects once removed from their convenient carrying cases.

Systems fail users. It can’t work the other way ’round.

A system is a tool, and the tools I’m describing are intended to work on behalf of human beings. I won’t forget that, and I beg you not to either.

Speak up when organizations ask you to serve their systems. Unless you’re eager for the age of robot overlords enslaving your offspring, remind the companies you reward with your dollars that human needs trump incrementally more efficient systems.

2 thoughts on “Systems should serve people, not the other way around

  1. Yes, yes and yes!!!! I found it rather contradictory that you are better served if you call an ambulance then drive yourself and wait in the ER! Who’s to say that the person who had someone drive them isn’t just as sick as the person who arrived in the ambulance? Sometimes they are driven for fear of a huge ambulance bill.

    Oh and the airport! I feel like I need another set of arms when going through that process. …

    • I can see I touched a nerve. 🙂

      Seriously, I’m a nerdy engineer who loves efficiency, but there is no good design without keeping the user in mind. We, as a society, should work to make these evolving systems work harder FOR us, because so many daily experiences are evidence of the opposite. It is not my job to make these systems happy!

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