Software: solution or a new problem?

by Mohammad Mayouf

Quote Blog 11PCs, laptops, computer pads, smart phones and others have become essentials in our daily lives, for some even a way of living.  It is true to say that technology has turned much of the world into a “global village” (Marshall Mcluhan’s phrase) where any information can be obtained within seconds with a click, rather than spending hours or days searching for and sifting through large volumes of paper turning page after page.  Technology has touched nearly everything in our life, which has made me think that the world might end up with living surrogates rather than human selves: however, the question raised is “will this kind of technology solve many of our problems?” and the likely answer “probably not”.  Here, I will briefly explore why technology fails despite all the numerous benefits it provides for the users.  I will look at this through the ‘lens’ of software and why they turn out to be a problem rather than a solution.

Since the 1940s, writing software has evolved into a profession which serves every sector around the globe.  The capability of software during the early periods severely limited its usage, as they were designed to work in particular operating systems.  The later advance into creating several operating systems has forced software developers to extend the capabilities of their designated software to operate in multiple environments or, in some cases, develop separate software where each can operate in its own operating system.  However, even with the smoothness of today’s technology (evident in better user interfaces, operation speed and cross-compatibility), there is still a problem: due to differing and evolving customer requirements, software often needs to be specifically configured and certainly needs regular upgrading.  Usefulness relies on tailoring software to cater for different user and sector needs.  This is not necessarily done by the software, but through the software as I will explain later in this blog.

Figure showing limited useful lifecycle of software
Figure 1: Lifecycle of the software, and the awful truth that make software mostly useless

Figure 1 captures the actual experience by users (software specialists) from different sectors and disciplines: very few are actually really happy from the beginning, many need support to use it (let alone use software to its full capacity), and within a few years software becomes useless (be it obsolete or incompatible with newer systems and requirements).  Looking again at Figure 1, you may wonder why the word ‘Problem’ is written much larger than any other text.  This is because software tends to generate the same problem over and over and, in some cases, create new problems.  In a nutshell, “the awful truth is that software delivers more problems than it solves”.  And worse, software has made some problems more complex than before, partly due to ever increasing user expectations and range of needs.

Let’s briefly look at a specific case, namely construction software, which is an area I have experienced personally.  I was asked to perform a 4D analysis of one construction project.  I should explain here that 4D simulates the process which a construction project undergoes using a 3D model and project schedule to produce a video of how the project will progress to completion along a timeline.  In this task, I encountered a large offer of different software packages with several new construction software packages that had in fact not yet been used.  I was advised to use a software package which was claimed to be one of the best in 4D technology at that time.  However, when the finished 4D model was sent across to the project stakeholders, we received much negative feedback.  The problem was that the 4D model could not provide most of them with the information they required.  Also, the analysis of data arising from the model mainly served the contractor and only partly satisfied the client.  Moreover, constructing the model ended up being highly time-consuming and as a result a decision was made to use the software only for bidding purposes.  I drew several conclusions from this case.  First, early involvement of those affected by the use of the software is essential – before choosing and using specific software as this will not only save time, but also reduce any extra costs.  Second, investigating previous applications of the software (if available) can help identify specific strengths and weaknesses and thus help make an appropriate choice in terms of selecting a software that promises maximum benefits for most stakeholders.  Third, paying attention to specific requirements by software regarding operating system and standardisation increases the chance of success.

Two questions arise from this article: First, do we understand the problem that the software is trying to solve?  Second, will solving issues within the capabilities of current software help to develop better software for the future?  By looking at methods like soft systems methodology (SSM), the first questions can be addressed as SSM breaks systems (or in our case ‘problems’) into smaller bits where exploring the roots of these small bits can help identifying key issues which might be the cause of the problem.  On the other hand, the development and use of plug-ins has solved several issues for different software.  Plug-in is an additional function to the software which extends the use of the software for the user (e.g. EndNote, a referencing software, in Microsoft Word).  However, some of the plug-ins may suffer from their complexity (e.g. a plug-in which requires a specific format that needs software expertise) or being in a foreign language where software developers tend to ignore it (e.g. a plug-in developed in Dutch for software used in English-speaking context).  Research about software’s ability to support user needs is important to investigate and to try and establish causes of software problems.  This then would indicate how quickly or widely software will end up being useless.

 

Mohammad Mayouf is a doctoral research student in the Birmingham School of the Built Environment.  His research focuses on measuring and improving building performance through BIM (Building Information Modelling), considering the support that BIM-based software can provide to all stakeholders in the building.  He says: “I am not being optimistic or pessimistic, but realistic!”

 

About Claudia Carter

Claudia studied geography and environmental management for many years worked in academic and applied research on environmental governance, environmental values, public and stakeholder engagement, critical evaluation, and interdisciplinary research approaches. She joined BCU in 2011 as researcher and lecturer teaching and supervising undergraduate and postgraduate students.

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