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Melanie Turek
Melanie Turek
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Why New Year's Resolutions Don't Work

There’s a reason most of us have such a hard time sticking to our new year’s resolutions-changing behavior is hard, and the longer we’ve been behaving in a certain way, the harder it gets. A recent blog by the New York Times’ John Tierney highlighted this in an interesting way. The post is about the smart elevators at the paper’s new headquarters—and the fact that they’re tripping many riders up, including Times employees who have been riding them for months.

From what I could gather from the post, the elevators save time and energy by grouping passengers according to floor. You push a button in the lobby stating your desired destination, and you are directed to an elevator. The odd thing is, once inside that elevator you don’t do anything else—like push a button to get to your floor. Not surprisingly, the process has people very confused, because it doesn’t conform to the elevator behavior they’ve been conducting for years. And it goes beyond simply expecting to push a button after entering an elevator—as numerous studies have shown, most of us are also conditioned to repeatedly push floor buttons in a (usually vain) attempt to get the doors to close faster, for instance. (Tierney doesn’t mention whether the elevators have “door open” and “door close” buttons, but their absence would at least let riders avoid the awkwardness of having to hold—or choosing not to hold—the elevator for late arrivals.)

The Times’ elevators were also the victim of a few poor design choices, such as not displaying the current floor—instead, the system showed only the next floor, leading people on that floor to depart one stop too soon. You’d think that’d be a pretty obvious user-interface snafu, but according to Tierney, “It took months before engineers finally added a feature to the sign showing which floor the elevator was on.” But the bigger issue here is getting people to change their elevator-riding behavior—not just being willing to push buttons on a central console rather than a local one, but also accepting that doing so changes the elevator-riding experience.

Transformational technology can change the way the world works, but it also requires a transformation in behavior—and that requirement can stall adoption for years, even in the face of significant benefits. Sometimes, we don’t make the transition at all. (Tierney ends his blog with a discussion of cars that will drive themselves, which he says could arrive in five years but won’t be adopted for 50; I’d be surprised if they’re adopted at all.)

Often, I think, our resistance is about control—and the desire not to give it up. When you really get down to it, that’s why people don’t like new technology—they fear the tools will take over the process, losing the human element, and their ability to influence it. And the fear isn’t entirely unjustified, because many technical processes actually involve very human interaction. One responder to Tierney’s post named Erika pointed out that the new elevator system interrupts human conversation—if you’re talking to someone who works in the same building but on another floor, you can’t “ride up with them” to continue your conversation. That may seem minor to an engineer, but it’s major to the humans having the interaction.

The idea that transformational technology requires transformational behavioral change—and sometimes, that that change is actually not what you want—has real meaning for communications and collaboration vendors as they develop new technologies to make communication easier. As unified communications and collaboration tools enter the enterprise, we’re sure to notice bugs and glitches related to the interface and the infrastructure—but we’ll also discover some problems that no one expected, and which simply can’t be fixed.

Of course, none of this should keep any of us from trying to achieve our own personal resolutions in 2008; just don’t be too hard on yourself when, like me, you give up around January 15.

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