AI isn't a drill, and your users don't want holes

There's a popular saying; "No One Wants a Drill. What They Want Is the Hole". It's a pithy (and broadly) correct statement. But I don't think it goes far enough. Let's apply the Five Whys method to the issue:

  • No one wants a drill. What they want is the hole.
  • No one wants a hole. What they want is a picture hook.
  • No one wants a picture hook. What they want is art hanging on the walls.
  • No one wants art hanging on the walls. What they want is a pleasant living environment.
  • No one wants a pleasant living environment. What they want is to attract a mate.

And so on. Feel free to substitute with your own anecdotes and biases.

Sure, there are some people who will buy ridiculously overpowered tools because they like gadgets. But those gadgets mostly serve as a gateway to our real needs.

Website designers often fail to appreciate that most small businesses don't want a website. They want customers. The restaurants near me have some truly dreadful websites. Broken URls, crappy pictures, and obnoxious designs abound. I once naïvely thought that I could sell them my web design services. But that was a dead end. Those restaurants are full most nights from walk-in traffic. They don't need a snazzy book-in-advance system. While some people might prefer an online reservation form, the majority are quite happy to call on the phone to book a table. The chances of anyone ordering takeaway from an individual website is basically nill - so they're happy to go with Just Eat / Deliveroo.

And now we're seeing the same mistakes made with AI.

I saw a post recently (that I'll lightly anonymise) which said:

I think there's an opportunity to sell AI services to local businesses. Like electricians, retail, restaurants.
What services or products I could offer?
Perhaps branded ChatGTP? AI content generation? AI trained on their data? AI customer support?

This is 100% the wrong approach. AI is a drill - and people don't want drills; they want holes.

When I think of all the small businesses I interact with - what could AI bring them? The answer isn't to fling half-baked technologies at people in the hope it transforms their businesses. This requires talking to people. Find out what their problems are, what they need fixing, where they struggle.

Does my plumber need an AI trained on 5 years worth of data to know which customers he should prioritise? No! He's got more work than he can handle and is pretty adept at picking the lucrative jobs.

Does the local charity shop need 24/7 chatbot support which hallucinates the contents of the shelves to potential customers? No! They need some more volunteers to sort through donations.

I think AI can be useful. But it is a tool, not a product.

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6 thoughts on “AI isn't a drill, and your users don't want holes”

  1. mike says:

    I think there’s an opportunity to sell Star Trek DVD box sets to civil servants. Which Star Trek series do civil servants like?

    Like the person whose post you quoted, I have said an opportunity exists then immediately shown it lacks any credibility. If I don’t already know which Star Trek series civil servants like, I cannot have any logically sound reason to say there’s an opportunity to sell them Star Trek box sets.

  2. Nice summary.

    A long time ago I was offered a job to specialise in first generation AI. I saw an example of a mistake made by training a camera to recognise Russian tanks. It made big mistakes but the data was very small. Big data is the solution to this. The other example was choosing the correct material to make the inside of aero engines out of. My conclusion was that the experts were falling over themselves to make that decision. They enjoyed it. An AI prog may be able to suggest a marginally better solution but the data is so small (there are only a few dozen metals and ceramics to choose from). Suggesting a totally different approach to aero engine design is where the big money is.... and there is no data ... but there are some very clever people...

    I didn't take the job in AI .... I would this year, but as Terence explained, choosing the right place to use AI, isnt a job that AI would be very good at.... and humans are not very good at that either.

  3. Michael says:

    This makes so many excellent points. My current workplace is suffering from AI-creep in a big way.

    We are a service company who under-prioritizes and under-funds writing documentation. Service documentation is everything, but it's not "sexy". So it doesn't get the attention it needs.

    So they hired a PM who got the idea to google if you can feed PDFs to GPT and get back something like a custom ChatGPT (yes, of course this exists) - and now that's our formal plan for documentation. No concern of GIGO, just the confidence that our previously poorly-funded PDFs going in will magically come out with more intelligence.

  4. @blog I'd stop at 'bit'. I really care about tools. I buy tools without any idea what I'll use them for (yet.) I hate having an urgent job to do and spending days getting the things I need together. "A few good tools" are life's essentials 🙂


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