The computer won’t let me


While picking up some prescriptions, I asked the pharmacist if she could change the date that some of them automatically refill each month. Among other benefits, synching up the dates would eliminate the duplicate calls that I receive when each prescription is ready. Since the pharmacy has the technology to track and process these automated refills, I figured that changing the refill date would be an easy request.

To my surprise, the pharmacist told me that changing the refill date was impossible. “The computer won’t let me”, she explained. And the funny thing is, this seems like a totally plausible explanation, rather than a lame excuse. The experience made me wonder: have we really become so accustomed to technology dictating what’s possible that we immediately accept “the computer won’t let me” as an immutable truth?

Considering how many computer systems we interact with on a daily basis, it’s pretty obvious that we can’t possibly exert an influence on all of them. You might be able to request changes to software that your own company wrote. But it’s doubtful that you could get anywhere asking for fixes to products that you only interact with indirectly, such as the pharmacy software in my example. However, that doesn’t mean things can’t be improved. You just need to know the right questions to ask.

So, the next time someone tells you that “the computer won’t let me”, start by asking them how often the problem comes up. If it’s rare, ask them to propose an alternate solution that has worked for other customers. If the problem is common, inquire whether it reduces that person’s productivity or acts as a barrier to more sales. And if you can confirm that, ask the person to tell their manager exactly what they told you. With enough repetition and persistence, the business impact of those pesky computer problems will be clear, and decision makers will be more likely to invest the money to fix the underlying issues.