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Elegant products make us take tech for granted. (Part I)

One of my favorite aspects of a well-designed software product is that users may not have any idea how hard it is working for them “behind the scenes.” Even as a software product manager and serial early adopter of tech gadgetry, I am still for the most part blissfully ignorant of the “work” that the hardware and software that I surround myself with is doing. Sometimes, I get a glimpse… Why does Siri take 5 seconds to process “Call my mom”? Perhaps because it is processing complex language models and calculating r-square confidence intervals both locally and in the “cloud.”
As it turns out, I’m not the only one to get accustomed to such capability in the palm of my hand or the dashboard of my car. Amidst the stormy final weeks of the recent US election, many Americans, including top politicians and officials, also revealed their naiveté. If you wish to re-live those dramatic days, feel free to read the Wired.com article, which was my inspiration for this posting.

When a retired US Army lieutenant general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, challenges the notion that 691,200 emails could be vetted within 8 days, I think it reveals just how far technology has progressed and how fantastic software has become.

This isn’t necessarily an assessment of General Flynn, but of our modern tech-laden lifestyle. A Google search for “email” returns more than 7 billion results in less than 1 second – a search that we can literally execute from the LCD screen on a refrigerator door.

While a tool many of us casually use on a daily basis can parse billions of results instantly, it’s somehow still hard to believe that 691,200 emails could be vetted in a week.
Examples abound, I believe that while we are mostly aware of how the progress that advancements in power and design that makes this all possible. Broadly, we interact with products that are so well thought-out that they obscure the back-end so well that we more or less assume that:

A) Its going to work
B) It will be easy to use
C) It will be fast

Yet, assessing this progress and capability from a task-basis – outside of our very familiar consumer products context – I am absolutely not surprised that many Americans refused to believe that those emails could be vetted so quickly. After all, our consumer products and apps rarely give us a hint of the actual volumes of data that they’re vetting – so how can we ever have any real idea how hard it is to process a set of emails?

So, what does this mean from a product perspective? First, while any and every current event has been “politicized” lately, this story shouldn’t. It’s ok that a retired General (who last served in 2014) got this wrong. I’m not familiar with his technology/intelligence involvement, but I do know that he’s an end-user just like me and is likewise ‘spoiled’ with the tech capabilities within an arm’s reach.

Stay tuned for part II!

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