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The Downside of Incremental Improvements

Updates, downloads and reboots, oh my. Are app "improvements" really worth the trouble?

September 13, 2018

4 Min Read
Software update

By T.C. Doyle

Leak-proof gaskets. Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS) medical protocols. The Gillette Fusion5 Razor.

All the above are wonderful examples of sustaining or incremental improvements to existing innovations. Each made a big impact in their field.

But the Skype for Business Build 16.19.132? Eh, not so much. While it added the ability to display “a delegator’s name on the incoming call notification shown to delegates,” it’s not likely to be remembered as a great piece of technology. Nor should it.

Once heralded as a technological marvel, incrementally better software improvements have become a burden. They take over our machines at all the wrong times and leave us confused when they include cosmetic changes after the fact.

To their credit, Microsoft and other software companies realize they need to change. “Have you ever had to stop what you were doing, or wait for your computer to boot up because the device updated at the wrong time?” wonders Microsoft’s Windows Insider chief Dona Sarkar in a recent corporate blog. “We heard you, and to alleviate this pain, if you have an update pending we’ve updated our reboot logic to use a new system that is more adaptive and proactive.”

To achieve this, Microsoft is leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve its customer experience. (Surely, I cannot be the only one who finds it ironic that Microsoft engineers are turning to machines to improve the human experiences they created, right?)

Let’s hope the effort isn’t too little, too late. As it stands today, millions of corporate end users, including some of your own customers, are saying “no” to software updates to avoid work interruptions and compatibility conflicts. It’s the functional equivalent of hitting the “snooze button” on your computer or mobile device.

That’s a bad thing when you consider the possible downsides of not upgrading your software. Consider what Google found out three years ago when it interviewed more than 230 security experts. Google asked its panel to share their top recommendations for staying safe online. Their consensus No. 1 piece of advice: Keep your software, as well as that of your customers, up-to-date.

Yet users now routinely ignore updates. Frequency is one reason, quality is another. Take the aforementioned Skype for Business. Once a simple, straightforward product, the user interface is now clumsy. Each new chat creates a new thread. This means that every conversation you have with Kevin down the hall is treated as a new discussion. Good luck trying to find the one in which he advised how to properly file your expense report.

IT, of course, isn’t the only industry in which the word “upgrade” or “new and improved” doesn’t necessarily translate into “better.” Take the redesigned 2013 Chevrolet Malibu. When it debuted in late 2012, it was decried as the worst redesign in years. In its review Autotrader posed the following question: “… is it worth what turns out to be a substantial price premium over certified-used versions of the previous Malibu?”

Ultimately, the editors concluded not so much.

“For most people, that’s not a compelling enough argument to spend thousands of dollars extra for the new 2013 Malibu. If saving money is more important than extra horsepower or having the latest in-car tech, we’d suggest giving a [Certified Pre-Owned] Malibu a close look before paying a premium for the redesigned model.”

You have to wonder if GM would have bothered to spend the $1 billion redesigning the car platform if they could have read the reviews in advance. Maybe they should have performed a pre-mortem before introducing the car.

Experts in a variety of fields are awakening to …

… the downsides of incremental improvements. Take some of the researchers at Intermountain Health Care in Salt Lake City. After years of study, they have come to recognize that the best thing we could do to improve patient outcomes would be to refocus the energy we spend looking for the next great advance and instead direct it to applying what we already know in a consistent and high-quality manner.

If that sounds crazy, please note that the organization was once featured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine as the outfit that was doing more to fix health care than anyone. Don’t get me wrong: They are absolutely for medical research. As researchers and scientists, however, they have become keenly aware that the number of drugs, procedures and devices introduced each year contributes to bad outcomes and spiraling costs if not properly integrated with proven care protocols.

Something to think about while you’re waiting for your device to reboot for the umpteenth time.

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