The Magic of Self Service Applications

There is an age old adage I start every presentation with: “If you give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. If you teach a person to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.” That is the essence of self-service. What it can evolve to from there is so much more.

Back in the day, most documents were typed by secretaries, a “printer” was a person, you called AAA to get driving directions (which were sent to you in the mail), travel agents were the only way to get airline tickets, and if you wanted to get cash from your bank account, you had to drive to the bank, go in, wait in line, and wait for a bank teller to help you. On top of that, banks were only open Monday through Friday 9-3 and Wednesday until noon (aka banker’s hours). It was not so long ago that we only had access to things like cash, travel arrangements, and word processing during limited business hours!

Apart from limited windows of opportunity, huge amounts of time and energy were used just communicating what we wanted. Whenever there is communication, there is bound to be misunderstandings. Throwing away a fifty pound carton of misprinted flyers was simply common place. It is only after self-service becomes part of our lives that it becomes clear just how much time and energy was spent accomplishing the same thing without it.

I Made This

What makes self-service special is the “I made this” moment.

The move towards self-service is motivated by cost savings for the provider and convenience for the recipient. What it ends up doing is making things possible that were not possible before. Typewriters had been in use for well over a century before word processors came along. Word processing started out as a “better” typewriter, it was seen as a means to facilitate the creation of a printed page. A great example for the magic of self-service is how word processors evolved from a tool to create the printed page to a tool for direct expression, so much so that the printing part has largely fallen out of the equation today.

Self-service is more than just making things happen without people. Banks did not go self-service by leaving their safes open and counting on their customers to just take the correct amount. Both banks and their customers needed to trust that the right amount of money was dispensed and that accounts were updated accordingly. Self-service banking only became possible when the technologies for accurately dispensing money and accessing your account balance could be housed together.

When rule engines first came on the scene, all the focus was on the engine itself — running the rules. Trade show discussions revolved around algorithms and clever data structures. Authoring rules was something developers lived for, and users lived with. When a subject matter expert needed to change the eligibility criteria for an insurance policy, the first step was still scheduling a meeting with an analyst. Sound familiar?

Now, authoring tools and vocabulary have created an environment where subject matter experts can confidently declare and think about their logic at the same time. In conjunction with that, developers are able to put in the necessary controls they need to safely hand over responsibility. With today’s rule engine technology, the promise of “Self-Service Applications” is beginning to be delivered. The required technologies of editing the rules and running the rules can finally be housed together. Self-service applications are designed around direct non-technical logic management with developers and subject matter experts having the trust and confidence they need to take advantage of it. It not only makes creating things easier, but expands the boundaries of what can be created. As rule engine technology had matured in the footsteps of self-service, running the rules has become more akin to the printed page.

Self-service is more than the sum of its parts. There are all kinds of supporting arguments for self-service in terms of reducing cost and improving accuracy. That is not what makes it special. What makes self-service special is the “I made this” moment. It is the mental shift from having to depend on someone else to understand what you want and build it for you, to actually building it yourself. The ownership of the rules changes hands and personal pride kicks in. Using a word processor isn’t just about typing – you think, you shape and reshape paragraphs, you create the document. The same thing happens with rules. Subject matter experts create logic that exceeds anything they could have been communicated to a developer and they truly own what they have created.

When I visit companies that have made the leap to self-service, it’s not just how refined and precise the rules become or how agile they are. It is that the authors enjoy what they do and they do it better than any programmer ever could.

As the adage goes . . . if you want it done right, do it yourself.


  1. Jim Wray

    Great post Loren! Your post reminded me of a customer I visited a couple of weeks ago. They are in the midst of porting a nearly two-decade old legacy system. One member on the team has been working with that system for most of its life and is one of the few people in the company with a deep understanding of all the business rules in it. He was chomping at the bit to show off the rules he had authored and get my opinion on some ways he could improve them. The “personal pride” was evident.

  2. Pingback: Speed of Rule Trust | thinkinginrules
  3. David Clegg

    You make a great point with the benefits of ownership. Having been on a project as the sole business analyst and developer of the rule set for an insurance company the sense of ownership grew into something of significance.

    Not all areas of the business had the same degree of ownership over the rules that ran their departments. I was fortunate enough to have one subject matter expert for one department who really wanted to delve into the rules. They really shined at meetings where we uncovered process and criteria and didn’t shy away from complex edge cases and exceptions.

    If I were to do it all over again I would identify that particular subject matter expert to take the last steps and really mold the process into a fully self-service experience instead of playing the intermediary. I think as the tools continually improve along with a generational shift toward expecting self-service everywhere, ownership of rules will be taken (not forced upon) by the real experts, not just delegated by default to those with technical know-how.

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