written by owen on 2018-Jul-18.
"Technology by itself is not the disruptor. Not being customer centric is the biggest threat to any business."
I had never seen this "customer-centric" meme before but it ties back to something I have noticed for a few months now. Customers complain, everyone complains especially customers on social media. But who really are these "customers"? What are their core motivations? I spun it around in my head for a bit and this article entails what I discovered: Technology is only solving easy problems for a small set of people and therefore playing a game of "efficiency by elimination". So the plan is to get 100% customer satisfaction, all you need to do is care about 1% of the population and ignore everyone else. This is done by finding a way to weed out all the difficult use cases. The practice of "weeding out" or "narrowing" of the tech consumer base gets more obvious the deeper you look into technology today. Auto updating browsers, security patches, planned obsolescence - its all just a process of weeding out. Tax offices on the other hand get caught with a bad reputation by a new breed of inconsiderate, impatient customers hyped up on microservices.
Death and Tax Offices
Let me digress for a moment. I went to the local tax office recently and everyone knows the tax offices in Jamaica are terrible. However, standing in a line of 30 people got me thinking. Why is everything so slow? Why do they seem to always operate on a marginal level of efficiency? Why not have a bunch of finger print scanners to make the process faster? Either the building is too small or there are not enough tellers, place always packed to the brim or poor/vague instructions for getting things done. The worse case scenario is having to travel back and forth to multiple offices in the same day, only to hit a dead end on a random piece of the paper work. Why does it have to be this way? Uber did not kill Taxis. Limited access and fare control killed the Taxi - I guess taxi drivers should not earn a predictable wage.
Eventually you get through with your business - hopefully before you die - and you move on with your life. But one would think to themselves why is the process not more "customer-centric"? Why have tellers and lines at all? why all this paper? Previously I would have just erased the whole experience from my mind and moved on to my next mission in life but this time was different. This time I figured it all out.
The ah ha moment
Then it came I figured it out: I am not the target customer. I was never the target consumer. Well, in reality I am "a" customer, as in a part of a "set" of customers to which the tax office must provide service. This in its entirety explains why the tax office is and will always be (or appear to be) a terrible place to do business. The service is terrible because it has a wide, diverse and complicated consumer base that it cannot possibly satisfy all of them at all times. A problem that software alone cannot fix.
This brings us full circle, around and back to the meme of tech companies being more consumer centric. Netflix, Uber, Apple, Amazon, Airbnb and many others have been gradually narrowing their customer basis over the past decade. Even simple things like Apple removing headphone jacks is a move to narrow a customer base. Pride themselves on a small but profitable body of consumers. Want cheaper Uber fares? - remove the driver altogether and have self driving cars. It would seem that these technology "disruptors" have become successful by ignoring large portions of society in favor of giving a quick fix to a narrow customer base of people with credit cards, mobile data and dumb terminals called "smartphones".
Unfortunately government tax offices do not have the luxury of choosing its niche market and therefore must forever provide services to the poor, blind, elderly, disabled, men, women, illiterate, handicapped, children - just to name a few. Services like Uber have failed in Trinidad and Tobago because small markets with diverse customer bases do not have enough room to sustain these services. The convenience provided to a few fails to out-way the annoyance suffered by many. The ecosystem of small markets end up in an evolutionary arms race between the tech disruptors, the government and the general public. Life is more complicated than simply choosing "Iphone" or "Android".
It would be cool if tax offices were filled with touch screen kiosks and virtual voice activated AI robots but who would that benefit? Add another billion accounts to the play store? What would you sacrifice so that you can get just a little bit of convenience? Your personal data? The data of your friends? What portion of the population knows how to navigate them selves around an touch screen? How would the elderly and literate be accommodated? Or should we just teach everyone or simply allow them be damned to the wasteland - mad max style.
It would seem that technology has narrowed itself into a corner if its own choosing. The mobile internet was supposed to bring information the masses suffering in netcafes but instead it has brought facebook under the guise of facilitating new business models. This is one of the prime examples of a "tech disruptor" casting its net wide while at the same time benefiting a narrow set portion of the public for its own benefit.
Saving the world or a saving few?
Netflix did not kill Blockbuster. Late fees killed blockbuster - I guess no one wanted to bring back movies on time. There are countless cases where technology has risen on the backs of some other disenfranchised group of consumers and producers. At this very moment my browser is asking me to download an update which will surely render my computer useless. There are millions of pieces of old technology, phones and hardware that have been deprecated in the name of technological progress. As the hardware is deprecated so are the people that use them. Everyone seems to have been accustomed to this "narrowing" for the sake of progress.
This "customer centric" meme is a misnomer used to mislead people into believing that technology is constantly improving our lives and the lives of everyone it touches. The "idea" that a technological approach is more consumer centric than other options simply because it is more convenient to a specific consumer base is one of the biggest problems in technology today. The tech in Uber exists on a backbone of public services that it feeds on. These public services exist to benefit a larger consumer base than Uber itself. If Uber stops working even for an hour, its clients simply fall back to the normal public transportation. Government services cannot operate in such a state of reckless abandon. Exposing your usebase to a state in which they could possibly not be supported is not a something that people take lightly. But technology has end-user licensing agreements to solve that problem.
No matter how basic the advances that are made in technology, tax offices will always appear to be in-efficient and awful because tax offices exist for a bigger reason than catering to the whim of the few people with iphones and data plans. Some users will always be inconvenienced at one point or the other. 100% coverage is impossible and it seems that a vocal minority is becoming increasingly "inconsiderate" to the needs of society as a whole. Large sectors of society are willingly ignored in favor of promoting convenience, touch screens and quick fix solution to big problems. Hate banks? = lets use bitcoin because its IOT? Hate being poor? Lets use mobile money! Here today, gone tomorrow is the modern tech mantra. It is never the fault of the technology, you just need to hold your iphone the correct way or upgrade to a supported browser.
The convenience technology brings seems to be built on a narrow base with a mounting technological debt. This narrowing appears to be the new tool that is being used to increase efficiency in the tech space. Constantly raising the barrier of entry under the guise of security or pushing the technology forward. Is technology really disruptive or is it simply ignoring the general public while appeasing a few people who live in a world of credit cards?