Sunday, April 6, 2014

Interacting with technology

I've been thinking about different ways of interacting with technology.  I break the roles down into five categories:
  • User - knows how to follow a specific series of steps to produce specific outcomes
  • Operator - has a mental model of the system that she can use to come up with new processes that produce outcomes outside of her instructions
  • Technician - has a more powerful mental model of the system that she can use to diagnose malfunctions, open up the system, and make a limited set of alterations to improve its functioning
  • Scientist - discovers new principles and proves the possibility of new concepts
  • Engineer - applies principles and concepts to produce a novel system to reliably solve a set of problems
Worth noting is that these roles are situational.  With cooking, I am a User.  I know how to follow a specific recipe to produce a specific product.  Only in narrow cases like sandwiches and omelettes am I more advanced; I have not derived any truly new recipes.

With most mechanical and electronic devices, I am an Operator.  With cars, I am an Operator and a weak Technician.  I can drive drive pretty well and handle situations I haven't been trained for.  I can also do very basic diagnostics and repairs.  With electronic devices, I'm a more advanced Operator; I can figure out how to operate most electronics effectively without any training.  I'm still only a weak Technician.

The only case I can think of where I might be something akin to a Scientist is running experiments (i.e. A/B tests) on users to derive principles about their behavior.

Obviously the most dominant role in my professional life is that of an Engineer.  I produce novel systems to reliably solve a set of problems.  This has been dominated of late by working through others, but I don't think that diminishes it (certainly not in the hands-on way I do it).

What's interesting is that even as an Engineer, one can also play the roles of User,  Operator, and Technician.  A lot of Engineers build systems that contain useful technology built by other people.  It's almost impossible to avoid that these days.  Depending on how sophisticated their usage is, they could be either Users, Operators, or Technicians.

A lot of valuable and interesting businesses and products are built this way.  I wonder about Engineers who are happy building systems where the all the technically interesting stuff was invented by other people.  I personally would be bored out of my mind.  At my job, I get to invent new systems that didn't previously exist to solve problems that either weren't solved at all or were solved poorly.  That's what keeps it interesting.

Update: after thinking about this for another 6 months, I realized Operator and Technician are two different roles and updated this to reflect that.