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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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