Optimising on the edges – how difficult is it to take a meter reading?

Sometimes I wonder whether we have gone too far with technology and then we go one step further.

I found another example yesterday when entering the meter reading for my utility supplier.

For a few years now I’ve chosen utility suppliers who allow me to enter my own meter readings, in the UK these generally come with a slightly lower tariff or some other minor inducement. Initially the method of doing this was to use a web site. Because my memory isn’t fabulous I would go outside with a piece of paper and take down the two five-digit numbers required and enter them into the web site via my laptop.

Then along came the mobile application; I could remove the step requiring me to note down the numbers on a piece of paper. I’d walk outside with my mobile device and enter the two five-digit numbers into my iPhone. What could be simpler? Well it turns out that even that is too much effort for people.

This month when it was time to enter my utility usage figures the mobile application came up with a new feature – camera meter reading. No longer do I have to go through the laborious step of reading the meter and entering the two five-digit numbers into my phone. I can now click on a camera icon, point the phone at the reading on my meter and let it read and interpret the reading for me. How brilliant is that? Instead of reading and clicking I can now point a camera and let it do the reading. I still have to do the reading, of course, because I need to confirm that the camera has interpreted the number correctly but I don’t have to type in the numbers. It was quite an easy process and the camera got both five-digit number correct but the previous process was hardly arduous.

The most difficult part of the whole meter reading process is walking to get the key, walking outside with it and opening the cupboards. This still isn’t very arduous, but it takes significantly more effort than the difference between typing a two five-digit numbers and letting a camera do it for me. Someone in a development team, somewhere, has decided that the effort of this optimisation is worth the reward. I suspect that the reward is one of customer satisfaction rather than one of time optimisation, but I wasn’t dissatisfied with the old way of doing it. I’m more dissatisfied with one of the locks on one of the meter cupboards and it’s inability to lock first-time.

We do this type of optimisation on the edges all the time in as technologists.

There’s an old saying in the UK, I don’t know how global it is, but it goes like this:

Can’t see the wood for the trees.

In technology we are good at optimising all sorts of things on the edge, but not as great at dealing with the fundamental issues at the heart of an issue.

We have more communication technology than is healthy for us, each one promising to make communication faster/better/more social and yet we still struggle to communicate.

We have lots of ways of dealing with SPAM rather than closing down the causes of SPAM.

We make it easier to enter a five-digit number on a meter rather than getting the meter to tell the supplier what it’s reading is.

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