(Hype circles part 2) Tech is an allen key, not a hammer

This is the second in a series of three posts on hype circles around tech innovations.

In 2010, if I wanted to commiserate with a public sector colleague about something that had gone wrong, I had a quick riposte. “Cheer up”, I’d say, “it could be worse. Your Director could have got an iPhone for Christmas.” Anyone fighting in the same web (we hadn’t yet discovered ‘digital’) trenches would grimace, we’d bond over a moment of shared pain, and move on. 

In 2010, a few years after the first iPhone had been launched, smartphones were far from ubiquitous, but had fast morphed into the kind of status symbol that people on Director pay grades fell into the orbit of. And the thing with Directors is that they rarely experience and use technology first hand without thinking that they need to bring it to work. 

This meant that the moment that a Director got their hands on an iPhone (whether as a result of a birthday, Christmas, or a retail whim) time was ticking down like an alarm clock in a crocodile’s mouth to the moment when they’d turn up in the web team’s office space and conspiratorially utter the terrifying words “I’ve had an idea. I think we should have an app.”

This happened so frequently that I had a prepared list of reasons why it might not be a good idea: people can rate your app (‘what? unqualified people can comment on my site? in public?’), 95% of apps are downloaded and never used, getting to the front page of the app store takes millions, you have to continually upgrade and fix your app when the OS is upgraded and accidentally kills your code, you need 24/7 support, you have to have three separate teams developing identical functionality for different OSs, someone might FoI you and find out that you’d spent millions on it etc. etc. A few years later, Tom Loosemore wrote the classic GDS treatment of this after many similar conversations (at least one of which was with me): We’re not ‘appy. Not ‘appy at all.

The problem here was not so much with the technology, but the blanket assumption that the technology was so marvellous that it must be pressed into service immediately, in any way possible. This application of the Law of the Instrument (“if the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail”) to technical issues could have intoxicating results. When you have a stunning solution in search of a problem, it turns out that almost any problem you hear about can – in some way – be fixed with your solution. Unhappy with the website? Build an app. Can’t find things on the website? Build an app. Can’t publish things fast enough? Build an app. Need new ways of communicating with young people? Build an app. Need to build the Chief Exec’s profile? Build an app. 

Of course, smartphones and phone apps weren’t the problem. I’d go so far as to say that the number of unthinking attempts to make pointless apps in government ten years ago unfairly tainted the specific use cases that apps could have been good at solving. When I looked at flooding warnings and updates at around that time, a native app was the only option that would have easily given good enough geolocation to allow users to safely and quickly report incidents directly and avoid the costly timelag that relying on official monitoring could involve. More recently we’ve seen reasons why the Covid app was an app and there are verification-related factors that can make an app more usable than a website. 

As anyone who did end up unluckily pursuing one of the many vanity app projects that got commissioned will tell you, using any new technology as a hammer never ends well. It’s always difficult to pull nails back out of whatever they’ve been hammered into, and it doesn’t take too many bent nails to discredit the hammering process altogether.

Having the exciting technology is the easy bit, finding the right place to use it is the hard bit. New technologies are allen keys not hammers: find the right one and use it in the right place, and everything will fit together nicely; use the wrong one in the wrong place, and there’s going to be a lot of mess and swearing. 

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