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Simply Amazing September 11, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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It is the time of year that corn mazes become popular.  People will pay to wander through a maze cut into a corn field, enjoying the fall weather while they try to find their way in and out.  I always naively assumed that corn mazes occurred almost as an afterthought to the process of raising corn.  At some point, I supposed, a farmer rode through his fields with some sort of mower, carving out a maze. I was markedly incorrect.

Corn mazes, it turns out, are a big business.  Mazes are laid out before planting begins, and the actual cutting is often controlled by GPS-directed tractors.  Maze designs are marketed by various companies and can cost many thousands of dollars.  In my area, farmers join maze co-ops that control where mazes are created, ensuring that each maze has a strong local market to drive revenue.  Within the co-op, mazes are not located closer than 30 miles from each other to reduce competition. Non-co-op mazes pop up, of course, but they do not get the other benefits of belonging to the co-op.

Who knew?  How could such a simple, all-American thing like a corn maze actually require so much complicated planning and forethought?

It turns out that almost every “simple” thing is actually quite complicated, behind the scenes.  In fact, the best simple things are just a front for very complicated systems and processes.  From clean running water and electricity to your iPod Touch, there are many layers of detail that you just don’t have to worry about.  Thankfully, I might add.

IT is no different.  There are many complicated layers to even the simplest of IT tools and systems.  Ideally, those of us in IT should be masking all that from the end users, providing a simple tool that does something well.  Unfortunately, we generally do a terrible job of hiding complexity from our end users.  Sometimes, we think we are doing them a favor when we expose complexity in the form of “features” intended to help them.  Instead, we generate more confusion and annoyance.

It is unfortunate that people know what a “404” error is or that disks must be defragmented.  My mom should not have to know that software is updating itself or that the printer heads need to be aligned.  People want to use computers to get something done, not to become more proficient with computers.

I have no idea, honestly, how to do anything with my car except to start and drive it.  I like looking under the hood to admire the engineering therein, but heaven forbid that I would do anything under there.  I am not an automotive engineer, and I don’t want to be one.  I just want to drive a reliable car.

I think those of us in IT lose sight of what users really want.  We forget what it is like to really be an end user.  Even as we build wonderful new systems, we need to keep our users’ real goals in mind.  They just want to enjoy the maze.  They don’t want to know how to grow corn.

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1. Beverly Brown - September 11, 2009

Thank you for saying this! I’ve been saying it since I started using computers in the mid-1980s. I can’t tell you how many times I sobbed to the IT guys at the newspapers where I worked, “I’m not a programmer. I have neither the aptitude nor DESIRE to be a programmer. Quit making me do what I’m not designed to do!” There could be a herd of hamsters on wheels inside my PC making it run, for all I know. I appreciate the complexity, but would rather not have to understand it to solve my problems.

2. Lynn M - September 16, 2009

I enjoyed your post other than being pretty bummed out about the truth behind corn mazes, Chuck! Good analogy though. I used to pride myself on being a “good user” back when I worked at a certain company where I was very good friends with most of the IT staff. I know how difficult it was for them to work with people that couldn’t understand the simplest things about computers and how they work. Yet you make a very good point to those in the IT field. It is their job to know such things, not the person using the computer and working in an entirely different career area (yet, to those working in other fields, it surely makes life easier if you are a bit well-rounded and attempt to learn to correct your own problems). There are simple things that most people know about appliances or cars when minor problems occur. They save themselves time and money by being able to handle these things themselves, yet the car mechanic or repairman gets paid to fix problems and should be just as pleased to fix something simple as they are to take on a major overhaul. It is what he’s paid for! Thanks for the interesting read. You always have a wonderful perspective.
P.S. corn mazes are dangerous anyway….what if they catch on fire?

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