German Industry 4.0: Digitalized but un-usable

Since I moved to Berlin, Germany in early 2016, I have read numerous articles about the (lack of) digital technology and industry in Germany. Digitalization however, is THE buzzword over here! So where exactly is the gap? Why does the German media paint this apocalyptic view?

There is a strong resistance in Germany to digital technology. Not by it’s user base – in fact, the German (young) public is all too thirsty to consume digital products and services – but the structure of established large companies, as well as politics is holding the country back. Famous for beautifully precise engineered machines, German industry has invested heavily in efficiency and security.  – At the price of flexibility! Smaller young companies can sneak in, because they can and do focus on innovation and exploration.


The NEST is incredibly easy to use, yet fully featured.

The stereotypical German is focused on practicality, and will almost always put function before form. But this is not a ch between function or form, this is a question of usability.  Digital technology introduced a level of complexity issues that ended up being dumped in the users lap. The usability was lost in the crossfire between form and function. And this is precisely what’s missing in German products and technology today: usability. Not digitalization.

After many clicks, users can set a number of timezone with pre-defined heat settings. Complicated and counter-intuitive.

Complicated and counter-intuitive.

The field of usability, accessibility, UX, user centered design, design thinking – is not new by any means. But today, products that didn’t successfully address all aspects of usability are going to suffer more than products in the last century. There are countless examples: German cars are famous for their superior engineering, but the digital interfaces (for Navigation, self-Monitoring, Audio/Video, etc..) you find in them, are so poorly designed, that even enthusiastic and methodical user guide readers, find it hard to use them. Or take the powerful heating systems you find in most German homes: built to keep you reliably cozy during the freezing winters, but completely lacking a thermostat that allows non-tech-savvy folks to adjust the temperatures, or set up an vacation schedule, not to mention monitoring your system from your vacation. Compare that to products so intuitively easy to use like the ‘Nest’ and you see the vast gap. Sure, some companies are slowly addressing these short-comings, but it’s too late and too little.

Or is it? Yes, it’s late and it’s little. But having missed the early train of the creation of user-friendly highly functional digitalized products, the German industry now has the chance to get ahead – take the rocket, not the train.

To do so, Germans  must overcome their fear of change and insecurity. Most importantly it requires political will and investment. It starts with day to day experiences, such as banking and making payments. While SEPA (digital) bank transfers have become common place for larger sums or standing orders, Germans still prefer to pay cash at the checkout, and German stores prefer their customers pay cash. This is because there are fees associated for the sellers, and because Germans are highly suspicious of data security and have a strong sense of privacy. There are good (historic) reasons for this, but I see no truly active or inspiring discussions about how the industry can address these issues. Instead, it seems that the movers and shakers in Germany are simply accepting this limitation without the desire to push for innovation into bridging the gap between privacy and the connected world (of smartphones, social networks, internet of things, etc…).

Support comes from an unexpected source.

The growing sense of urgency to secure the nation against terrorism is bringing up the discussion about privacy and IT security. Rightly or wrongly so, there is open discourse about a standardized, cross-platform database for personal name records (PNRs) for travel that is accessible to certain law enforcement and intelligence entities under certain circumstances.

But other problems persist. For example, the fact that WIFI coverage is extremely poor in many regions – even cell phone reception is flaky even in metropolitan areas. The political will does not seem to be there to supply the entire country with connectivity. This is quite possibly the single most expensive political failure of the past decades. When the infrastructure is this bad, the industry is facing an up-hill battle that it can’t possibly win. You can develop great products in the lab, where you have great connectivity, but if it fails for the customer who has poor or slow connectivity, your products will not be adopted – at least not at home.

Another cornerstone of progress is to support those who create innovation, and you have to start with the youth and their education. German kids do not – in general – learn how to type in school, let alone how to program. Something, every American school kids has been learning in primary school for decades! In addition, companies are still resisting to hiring ‘Quereinsteiger’ i.e. talented and experienced individuals that might not have the typical career path or education. Or if they consider hiring these individuals, they are not remunerated according to their skills and experience but according to their schooling. Consequently this talent leaves the country or works at start-ups or international companies that do not penalize them for their ‘out of the box’ path.

To summarize, judging by my experience and research, the German industry and politics have to change their approach urgently. If they do, there is every chance that the country will remain a leader for machinery and technology, but if they don’t – the future looks grim indeed.

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