Monday, November 23, 2009

Don’t Let Yourself Be the Bug in Your Software

Have you ever heard the old joke about the guy who was such a bad dancer that they asked him to stop because he kept throwing off the music?  (If you know who told that joke originally, please let me know).

My wife had an interesting experience today in much the same vein.

Our children’s school system uses a web-based software system to schedule quarterly parent/teacher conferences.

For the elementary school, the scheduling is pretty straightforward, because you only have to schedule with one teacher.

For the middle school, however, it’s more complicated, because there are a half dozen or more teachers to potentially meet with for our one student. 

Because of this, conferences are limited to 10 minutes, per the rules indicated in the software system, and you can – in fact, you are encouraged to -- schedule back to back conference slots with different teachers, such that you can get through, say, six conferences in 60 minutes, in theory, with one scheduled right after another.  My wife scheduled her times a couple of weeks ago, and had no trouble with the software.

So far, so good.

Now, given that this is scheduling software, it only stands to reason that the offline elements of the scheduling process should be aligned with the software’s scheduling rules and vice-versa.  Unfortunately, this was apparently not the case.

My wife showed up 10 minutes early to her first scheduled conference.  She was told that she was 10 minutes (a whole session, mind you) early, and asked could she wait until the other parent(s) showed, or didn’t show, so everything could stay on track.  Smart thinking.  Despite my wife being early, the teacher recognized the potential downstream impact of breaking with the “business rules” so to speak, in this one case.

But, for some reason, certainly meaning no harm, the teacher said, just a moment or two later, that my wife might as well sit down and get started with the conference, so my wife obliged, even though only about half of the appointment timeslot remained. 

But, about 6 or 7 minutes into the other parents’  appointment time, the other parents actually did arrive, and the teacher then told my wife that she would have to abruptly end the conference that had only just begun, because she had to keep things on track schedule wise. 

In effect, she, again, meaning no harm, gave the other parents my wife’s slot and shortened the previous slot that my wife had “taken” at the teacher’s own request.  As a result, my wife got only about 2-3 minutes for that first conference, and didn’t have an opportunity to ask questions or discuss.  This is what is referred to as an  unsatisfied customer.

According to my wife, bells were not used to mark the hard cutoff for the 10 minute cycles, so she simply went on to the next room on her schedule, only to find that the teacher in that session was backed up, running about a session behind schedule.

This issue cascaded through several other conference timeslots, and apparently, occurred for others in parallel, until at one point my wife happened to be passing a school administrator in the hall, who was earnestly trying to keep things flowing properly.

The administrator, certainly meaning no harm, asked if my wife was having challenges with the schedule due to the fact that all of the teachers were running behind by 1 or 2 appointment slots by now.  My wife indicated that yes, the schedule was now off track, and the administrator, trying to help of course, said she would call the last teacher on my wife’s schedule and tell her that my wife would be on her way, but that her schedule was thrown off by earlier delays.

It is not clear whether the administrator actually reached the teacher to relay that message, but when my wife showed up, 15 minutes after the originally scheduled time, due only to the delays elsewhere, the teacher seemed completely irritated by the delay, and made it clear that she held my wife responsible for it.  The ensuing conversation was equally frosty.

My wife, to reiterate, was at the school early for her first appointment of the day, and simply tried to go from conference to conference per the schedule she had established with the website software a few weeks earlier.

So, considering my wife’s case alone, the software worked perfectly, but one appointment got cut short and thereby rendered essentially meaningless, all others got delayed, and the final one included some insulting attitude for good measure.

Now, I’m sure, at no point in this process did anyone think they were causing any harm.  And yet, major breakdowns occurred.

You can’t blame the software.  It did what it is meant to do.

You can’t blame the people for being ill-intentioned.  No one meant to cause any trouble.  Okay, maybe a few people could have been more pleasant, and/or followed through better.  But that’s just humans for you.

Regardless, there was definitely a process breakdown.

Looking at it after the fact there were a few key breakdown points that were noteworthy:

1) In my wife’s case, to stick with the process as well as possible, the first teacher should have either

a) not seen my wife until her scheduled appointment time, so she could politely let the late-arriving parents know that that time was booked, thereby hopefully keeping the subsequent appointments on track

b) seen my wife, and when the other parents did arrive, flip-flopped their appointment time with my wife’s so both got their full time and the teacher’s attention

or maybe even c) simply rescheduled the other parents’ appointment for later on in the day, for example

2) The administrator, rather than trying to call individual teachers and put out mini-fires, should have addressed the root problem – in my opinion, without the use of the school’s bell system to clearly indicate that appointment times had ended, parents and teachers apparently went over their allotted time in many, many cases, which had a cascading effect on delays.

3) The final teacher, when told by my wife that her delayed arrival to that last conference was the result of the aforementioned breakdowns, should have been more understanding, but that is really a matter of opinion, frankly.  You can’t count on people to be nice or understanding, I’m afraid.

The reality is, if parents and teachers had been more successfully influenced to stick to their appointment times, aligning the real-world process more closely with the software, then, the delays might not have occurred, and thus, the last teacher, despite her attitude, would have had little to complain about with respect to my wife’s arrival time at her conference.  And, the user, my wife, would have had a much more pleasant experience, and she’d be singing the praises of the school’s efficient method of handling conferences.

The moral of the story?  Don’t invest in software to simplify a relatively complex process, only to then be the bug in your own software by neglecting the real-world aspects of the process the software is supposed to help you streamline! 

Oh, and whatever you do, don’t piss off the end user.  Especially when she’s my wife.

This post originally appeared at

Reprints with attribution are welcome, feedback welcome.

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