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Training - it's time to take it Siri-ously

By Stephen Sutcliffe, Director of Finance & Accounting

Stephen SutcliffeThere should be a word for it. Maybe one of those long, German compound verbs. It's the sense of being increasingly dependent on something, yet simultaneously bewildered by it.

Let me give you an example: Apple's virtual assistant, Siri. When she first came out in 2011, Siri was pretty much an amusing distraction. We asked her, "Who let the dogs out?" and "When will the world end?". Or at least our kids did.

Now, though, I'm finding Siri rather more useful. She can schedule appointments more quickly than I can. She can play music by genre, or suggest new music based on my listening preferences. Apparently, she can even book me a table at my favourite restaurant. And, tellingly, I think of her as a her. Intellectually, I know Siri is just a collection of smart algorithms. Yet emotionally, she's becoming almost human - I even thanked her for her assistance the other day.

The question here is: What's changed? Have Apple's programmers transformed Siri's responses, copying human behaviour ever more successfully? Or have I become accustomed to a world in which having an emotional relationship with your phone seems pretty normal?

The answer, I suspect, is both. Growing together represents both a threat and an opportunity for those of us who are interested in the interface between human and computer.

Let's start with the threat. I believe that, as we begin to think of technology as human, we'll unconsciously attribute emotions and agendas to it. We've all been in the situation where we've been so frustrated with some hardware that we could cheerfully fling it out of the window. Think of that - but now imagine that your subconscious is whispering to you.... It's doing it on purpose. It doesn't like you. Cue a bad case of tech rage. 

Or how about those cases where your tech just doesn't understand you? You ask Siri "How old is Angelina Jolie?" and receive "Searching the web for Angela and Me". 

Or those times you realise there's a much better way of doing something - if only you'd known. (I found out last week you can take a selfie by pressing the volume button on the iPhone. I was so excited, I actually took one.)

All of these examples represent little breakdowns in the relationship between human and technology, and, after a while, we learn to handle them - how to ask questions in a way which Siri can answer, or what the useful shortcuts are. Which leads us nicely to the opportunity. Understanding that technology can be ever-so-clever, but represents just one side of a relationship is key here. Taking the time to understand what it can do, what it can't do, and how you can make best use of it - so it understands you - is critical. That's why I think it's time to take training Siri-ously (sorry).

Whilst tech companies (including NHS SBS) try their best to make products user-friendly, it's impossible to completely control the human variable. Just as we all use our phones a little differently, organisations develop different cultures for the way in which they use their finance or procurement systems. It's insidious, and it quickly becomes just another part of "the way we do things around here".

Having someone actually show you how systems can be used differently can be nothing short of a revelation - a bit like me learning to take a selfie one-handed. It reduces what I call "training Chinese whispers" - where Bob trains Joyce, who trains Mo. Each generation of trainers misses or misinterprets another couple of things. Eventually, there's a complaint that the system doesn't do what it's meant to - when in fact, the breakdown in the relationship could be on the human side.

NHS SBS provides complimentary training with migrations, and recommends top-up training after that. Importantly, we take away what we learn during these training sessions and use it to inform the development of our products and services. Whilst we're not quite at Siri stage yet, making our systems as helpful as possible is genuinely important to us.

If you'd like to know more about how we're making our tech more human-friendly - and how you can make your humans more tech-friendly - we'd love to chat. Our training team can be emailed at SBS-W.SBSTraining@nhs.net - or you can speak to a human on 07740418302.

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