Editor’s note: Barry H. Beith, Ph.D., is founder and president of HumanCentric Technologies, Inc.The world is moving faster and faster.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me getting older and slower, or if the world is, in fact, spinning faster and time intervals getting shorter. Let’s face it, just because technology can’t detect these changes doesn’t mean they aren’t real. In the meantime, we’ll just have to deal with the chaos. One can approach the current “give it to me NOW” mentality by developing the tools, interfaces, and systems needed to provide services, information, material, and goods in an on demand fashion. In other words, you plan and feed the “I want, I need, you gotta’ right now” attitude and perspective of the world we live in.

There are several integral challenges in doing this, which revolve around technologies, human nature, and their interaction.

Let’s first consider technologies.

While we have access to a mountain of information, our ability to utilize it is less evolved. We have barely sufficient tools to specify desired information and, while we eschew Boolean algorithms for establishing search parameters, in many instances we are stuck with “ands” and “ors” to do the job. Worse yet, we don’t always have the knowledge needed to transfer our perceived needs into the real world, to satisfy demands. Our search tools are, at best, adequate.

Even when we’ve conducted a search capable of reducing the universe to a finite data set, we possess insufficient tools to assess information reliability. Google’s approach supplies one metric for “goodness”, which is volume of links to other sites; there are no guarantees that the top sources of information are uniformly reliable. Anyone can now introduce information into the ether, but the ability to evaluate accuracy and utility is woefully inadequate. The knowledge that there are 15 hospitals within 50 miles of your home doesn’t tell you which one has the best emergency capability when your child breaks his arm.

Human nature is a funny thing

We often have no clue regarding what we need or want. Worse, we sometimes believe our desire assessments are incorrect. On demand systems may be one of these things. For the individual, the sweetest things in life are often those associated with anticipation. Ice cream, a visit, intimacy, a new toy or tool, are all made more special by the anticipation we experience. On demand services and products impact this basic human experience. If we can watch a movie anytime we desire, does it heighten our enjoyment of it?

There was once a story on 20/20 about a Japanese custom bicycle manufacturer. His shops were equipped with adjustable bicycle “buck”, from which store clerks could collect a variety of specific body dimensions which were immediately sent to the factory where a custom fitted bike was assembled within two hours! Six weeks later, the bicycle was shipped to the customer. The interviewer naturally asked why the shipping was so delayed for a bicycle that could be constructed so quickly. The manufacturer responded, “Because, anticipation is everything–.”. We may find that, in applying an on demand mentality to a plethora of services and products, we diminish our enjoyment of life.

The importance of the human factors

Unless we acknowledge the importance of the human factors and integrate it into our technology, combining our technologies and human nature will continue to represent an obstacle to overcome. Humans are notoriously poor planners from the standpoint of both task and time planning. On demand information, services, and products prey on this poor planning trait by providing a false sense of preparedness. We are led to believe that we can deal with any contingency at the last minute and “plan” on the fly.

Procrastinators beware, because the brittle edges of our technology in an on demand world will bite us all. This is evident in accidents, injuries, upset customers, and other negative outcomes. Our systems, tools, and interfaces are unequal to the challenges of helping human beings avoid impending doom. They are neither designed for an on demand world, nor are they capable of filling existing planning voids.

On demand systems allow us to build lives of a “just in time” nature. Unfortunately, “just in time” practices in manufacturing only work for some industries and leave even the largest proponents occasionally exposed. Our need for planning is served by the information available, as well as the time required to coordinate, calibrate, validate, and negotiate it. While on demand capabilities are appealing, their tendency to reduce planning efforts can actually introduce chaos and make our lives more difficult.

The bottom line:

Practical research is the key to developing a better understanding of requirements and guidelines prior to designing another “nifty” system or product that further fuels the dynamic of “I need, I want, you gotta’.”
Dr. Barry Beith earned his doctorate in Psychology/Ergonomics from North Carolina State University, where he continues to serve as an Associate Adjunct Professor.

He is Founder and President of HumanCentric Technologies, Inc. (www.humancentrictech.com ), a human factors, design research and product development company. Barry can be reached at 919-481-0565 or bbeith@humancentrictech.com.