July 19, 2013 Back to All Blogs

The “Fear Factor” in Making Technology Decisions

Understanding how patients and the public use health information is an abiding interest, so we loved a recent New Yorker piece about how patients make tough medical decisions. When weighing treatment options the “possible” often outweighs the “probable,” leading patients to choose more aggressive, painful and expensive options. Emotions, inclinations and hardwired shortcuts in thought all matter more than the cold facts of a physician’s recommendation. When patients are afraid, what gets said doesn’t matter as much as what gets heard.TechFailCone

While the hard reality of a physician’s recommendations is often far more serious (life and death) than a web project, fear-based decisions are a truth we face in developing technology solutions. Like health care, technology is often personal, a bit mysterious and scary.

The fear of failure can paralyze and overwhelm the decision making process about websites, apps and other digital platforms. For good reason: an estimated 75 percent of technology projects fail.  Mistakes cost in dollars and reputation. Mistakes sink careers and kill organizational viability.

Like healthcare, in technology the fear of failure matters. Organizations have better results with technology solutions companies who recognize this truth, but not for the reason you may think. Sure, the vendor that respects the no-mistakes imperative is far more likely to succeed without fail and deliver a product that works. But most organizations want to do better than “not fail.” They want to change minds and behaviors, innovate and excel.

When a technology company gets the small, but important things right, organizational leaders are in a better position to achieve more, succeed and lead. The second (success and leadership) cannot happen without the first (preventing technology failure). Consider the example of those working to redesign Healthcare.gov to be a gateway to the health insurance exchanges that will determine the success or failure of “Obamacare.” The citizen-centric, iterative, break-the-mold effort is in the relentless pursuit of making it work for users.

Here are a few do’s and don’ts for preventing technology failure and building the kind of teamwork and leadership to take on bold projects with big results (which doesn’t have to be more expensive by the way):

  1. DON’T: Jump to design first. Everyone has a preference for colors and design elements, but making it the starting point can hurt your project longer term.
    DO: Start with a shared vision for what success looks like. How your technology gets used and accomplishes goals should dictate a thoughtful planning, development and testing process.
  2. DON’T: Skip important questions that get to the heart of what it takes to make your project successful.
    DO: Invest the time to ask questions and then more questions. Your technology vendor should be positively exuberant in asking questions and demonstrate a zeal and curiosity about how your business or mission works. This leads to a lot of “I never thought of that before,” which can make all the difference in the success of your project.
  3. DON’T: Skip user testing. User testing is another form of asking questions of the people who matter most: your target audience of users.
    DO: Use a series of tests to get to the bottom of what the optimal experience should be for users. Otherwise you may end up creating a solution that may not align with what users want and need. User tests challenge assumptions.
  4. DON’T: Avoid accountability.
    DO: Make a product, app or website that works for the client a non-negotiable result. The scope of work and contract are important, but not as important as meeting your needs now and in the future. Insist on a staff of designers and developers who challenge assumptions, but don’t think they know it all. Success comes from give and take, listening and responding so everyone has a single goal in mind, the solution that will have the biggest impact, not the solution that fits closest to an outdated proposal. We recently took a risk and priced all our projects are priced as a flat fee rather than based on hourly rates. The customer sets the budget and terms.
  5. DON’T: Use an inflexible design process.
    DO: Insist on solutions that fit your organization’s unique needs and mission. You want quality to be the focus, not checking a box or following a template process. The way from here to there may not be a straight line or checklist. A vendor should be willing to change plans and re-test to make sure it’s right.

These tips help ensure your technology projects are executed well and aligned with your goals. Whether what you are doing is bold and new or routine, if it contributes value to your organization, its members, and its constituency, then it should be done right.

*Also check out:
Don’t let this happen to you (or me) – a technology vendor relationship gone awry
Engage or die. The fate of nonprofits and associations
It is your damn data. Use if for personal and public good
What Turbotax and online dating can teach health care
Designing for health behavior change
What do we know about health care public reporting? Not enough.

Mark Tobias (@PanthTech) is president of Pantheon, which combines technology expertise and a deep knowledge of health care, education, and social impact markets to provide online technology solutions for nonprofits, associations, and government.