Designing Automation for Humans, Part 1: Goals and Risks of Automation
What impact does automation have on our lives and the way we work? Some AI advocates promise us a brighter tomorrow, more rewarding days and more meaningful activities. A happy and peaceful world thanks to technology…
On the other side, pessimists prophesize the end of humanity, the destruction of culture, the advent of meaningless commercialism, the takeover of machines… in short, the end of time.
Far from these two extremes, we are forced to admit that at a time when automation is more and more present in our lives, we in fact feel that we have less time for what really matters.
The Greeks divided time into three concepts: Aeon, immobile eternity; Chronos, present, mechanical and measurable time; and Kairos. This last one is probably the one with the greatest added value.
Where Chronos dictates the movement of your watch or your next appointments, Kairos defines the moment to be seized, the opportunity to be enjoyed – baking in the scent of a rose as it blooms, watching a sunrise, or falling in love, for example.
This precious time must be maximized. But how much of our technology forces us to Chronos? Is there a way to design products that give us more profitable Kairos time, instead of less? That allow us to dedicate more time to ourself, instead of less?
For a few months, I have been working intensively on these automation themes as a Product Designer.
Conducting projects on this subject has allowed me to identify certain principles and lessons related to the automation of our processes and tools. This is what I will elaborate on.
Why System Automation Is a Corporate Dream
We have been building tools and machines since the stone age. Why do we do this? Because we want to accomplish increasingly complex tasks more easily and more quickly.
From the simple shovel to the supercomputer, all are built to perform tasks more efficiently than humans and to make their lives easier.
In short, tools simply help us perform physical tasks. Machines, on the other hand, have been created to perform them for us. Automation and artificial intelligence are the next steps in the process, replacing us in tasks that are not physical, but intellectual.
In recent years, many companies have started this journey for various but often similar reasons.
The Various “Whys” of Automation
Companies are turning to automation for many reasons, but these are often related to cost savings objectives. Yet automation is still often very expensive to implement and is prone to many failures, making it risky if not done correctly.
The main reasons for wanting to automate are:
By automating unessential tasks, organizations can effectively become less dependent on human labor and reduce their costs, especially when it comes to paperwork, maintenance, and repairs.
Business process automation relies on machines and software to perform recurring task, thus enabling sizeable tasks, and even processes, to be processed in a matter of minutes. Entire processes can therefore be executed more rapidly and with fewer efforts.
When successful in cutting down on costs and reducing execution time for operational activities, companies usually also benefit from more efficient workflows and results can be achieved with less efforts.
Building Consistency and Eliminating Risks of Errors
When processing tasks manually, the risk of errors can be significant. Indeed, humans are not safe from making mistakes, even less when there is a considerable number of tasks to be performed. These are problems that systems do not face.
This specific “why” became very clear to me during the realization of one of the projects on which the company I work for recently intervened for a large Canadian client. The client was facing a large wave of retirements and therefore a high risk of losing knowledge, know-how, and skills many areas. Automation proved to be a perfect solution to computerize and store important processes and information.
The Risk of Weakening the Company Culture
All these reasons, although legitimate, often put the human element aside. Company that are too busy designing perfect processes too often reduce the human element to the role of a tool and an adjustment variable.
However, by removing it from the equation, the company risks losing much more than it imagines in the automation of its processes. Weakening of its culture, loss of knowledge and know-how, or even disengagement of teams are possible…
Moreover, even when these risks are identified and addressed, we too often assume that automated systems are inherently complex. The damage they inflict on culture and humans then seems like a necessary evil to improve business performance.
Building a more balanced and less disruptive relationship for human teams drastically increases the success and impact of new automated systems. And to build this relationship, solutions and rules exist…I’ll discuss them more in my upcoming publications.