Users are from Mercury, IT is from Pluto

The two groups are often far apart.

I learned an interesting word which led to some very interesting reading on the topic.  The word and topic are qualia (pl).  There are several wordy explanations with which I won’t waste your time.

Daniel Dennett identified four properties that are commonly ascribed to qualia. According to him, qualia are:

  1. ineffable—they cannot be communicated, or apprehended by any other means than direct experience—see, touch, taste, hear, smell.
  2. intrinsic—they are what they are independent of anything else.
  3. private—interpersonal comparisons of qualia are impossible.
  4. directly or immediately apprehensible in consciousness—to experience a quale is to know one and to know all there is to know about that quale.

Got it?  That didn’t do it for me either.  Here are a few examples that helped me understand it.

  • How does wet feel?
  • What does blue look like?
  • What is the smell of mowed grass?
  • How does salt taste?
  • What is the sound of a whisper?

Common things.  Our brain knows what they are, yet to describe them to someone who has not experienced them, almost indescribable.  Your brain processes it one way, your mind processes it another.  Take a look at these pictures.

Now let’s look at healthcare IT projects, to be more particular, implementing an electronic health records system, an EHR system.  When you pictured the implementation in your mind, when you studied the implementation plan it painted a nice picture.  All the pieces made sense—sort of like the picture on the left.

At some point after most EHR implementations, the IT department still sees a pony.  The users can’t see the pretty picture.  Trying to explain what went wrong to the steering committee is like trying to describe to them the color blue.

IT people are able to look at the picture on the left and visualize the picture on the right.  When IT people talk to users, to the users it sounds like the picture on the left…

…and it feels like this.

It matters what the users think, and see, and feel.  If IT waits until the end to involve the users, the users will never see a pretty picture.  I’ll let you in on a secret.  In many hospitals the users (doctors and nurses) do not think IT has any understanding of their business.  Why prove them correct by keeping them out of the loop.  Their input is at least as important as IT’s and the vendor’s—probably more so.

“Look what we built for you” is not what the users need to hear.  “Look what we did together” has a much better chance of succeeding.

saint Paul M. Roemer
Chief Imaginist, Healthcare IT Strategy

1475 Luna Drive, Downingtown, PA 19335
+1 (484) 85-6942

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4 thoughts on “Users are from Mercury, IT is from Pluto

  1. Pingback: ICMCC News Page » Users are from Mercury, IT is from Pluto

  2. As an IT person, this problem is all too real. One way your team can get around it is to ask functional questions of each other, like “What is NOT blue?” or “If this were not salty, what taste might it have?”, or “What are other things that are blue and how do they work?”

    Sometimes those questions will a. make the non-IT people actually think about the issue themselves and b. help the IT person better comprehend the problem.

    It may be impossible to see eye to eye 100% but by asking such questions, you can certainly paint a more colorful picture.

    -Nick Orlowski


  3. Yes, I came back from working for 5 years on the NHS Connecting for Health (CfH) roll-out of EHRs in the UK. The key learning I came back with was, “involve the users.” i.e. the doctors and nurses.
    Now that I’ve been working on the rollout if systems here in Australia I cannot get people to listen to this simple advice.

    – frustrated,


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