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Laiserin's Lemma—Computer-Aided Mistakes
Jerry Laiserin

Some copies of last weeks Lletter were emailed with a garbled title for one story in the table of contents and feature briefs. It was the kind of error that can only occur in the world of computer-based, cut-and-paste, template-formatted publishing—inserting some current text over only a portion of the previous text. Not a serious error; certainly no one's life, health, or safety was at risk. Yet, this sort of computer-aided mistake is pervasive in every field of endeavor, from newsletter publishing to medical diagnostics and treatment to—yes—design documentation (whether of public infrasture, buildings, or manufactured products). As design software becomes both more capable and more complex, the risk of undetected or undetectable error likely will increase (even so-called parametric systems can be no more consistent in their output than the consistency of rules, locks, and constraints that govern their input). Does this raise or lower the bar of design professionals' "standard of care"?

Lawyers tell me that people who design and manufacture products operate under a concept of "strict liability"—if their product causes harm, they may be liable even if they were not negligent. Licensed providers of professional services operate under "professional liability"—a concept that may enable you to avoid responsibility even if your services result in harm, provided that you followed the "standard of care," or the behavior that other professionals would have followed in the same circumstances (it's interesting to note that software vendors and service providers seem to operate under their own special concept called "no liability").

No doubt different lawyers than the ones who briefed me on the above will jump in to critique my over-simplified explanation, but please consider it only as a place-holder for a larger point: that the opportunities and challenges presented to the design professions by information technology may, and likely will, alter the standard of care. This can occur along either or both of two paths.

First, as more design professionals make more extensive use of certain technology tools, such as web-based product research, the standard of care will rise to incorporate this new behavior into that pattern which professionals generally follow in a given set of circumstances. When web-based product research becomes pervasive in practice, failure to do so on your next design project may come to be considered negligence. This poses a risk for technology laggards, or late adopters. To be the last kid on your block to get that new "toy" may mean that you're the first to be successfully sued for failing to use the practice tools that everyone else is.

The other path to "standard of care" risk in technology adoption is through over-reliance on new and unproven technology or unquestioning reliance on technology that automates away some aspect of professional judgment. Relying on the notification features of some first generation "post and host" project collaboration services—without performing and documenting a process of due diligence—theoretically might expose you to a claim of negligence for trusting a technology that proved, in effect, to be untrustworthy (current generation versions of these services typically have grown more mature and more reliable). Similarly, relying on a code-compliance or clash detection software tool without at least spot-checking its performance might someday be considered negligence.

The irony here is that, rather than arguing for technological timidity in the face of new and unproven tools, the liability-protective interests of professionals would be best served if all practitioners jumped to a new technology at once. If every designer blindly accepted the output of a code-checking program, then that universality of acceptance might rise to the level of a standard of care defense.

If adopting new tools too late exposes you to the risk of falling behind an ever advancing standard of care, and adopting the new stuff too early poses the risk of being seen as recklessly far in front, then what is the best risk-adjusted technology strategy? Simply adopting the "moderation mantra" won't wash—it will leave you in a competitively disadvantaged, reactive posture. The ideal strategy for many practitioners and for a profession as a whole likely is that of the "fast follower." These are the folks who let the few inevitable pioneering risk-takers briefly get out in front and step on all the land mines; the fast followers then rush in along the newly cleared and demonstrably safe path.

In a game where everyone claims to strive for first place, might the secret to winning lie in coming in second?

Let me know what you think.


Editor and Publisher, The LaiserinLetter
Analysis, Strategy and Opinion for Technology Leaders in Design Business



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