What Buckminster Fuller Taught Me About User Experience and Customer Support

What Buckminster Fuller Taught Me About User Experience and Customer Support

With any workflow problem, the aim is to work as efficiently as possible – not in a “buzzword” way, but in the sense of making life easier for everybody. I learned this philosophy from R. Buckminster Fuller, who coined the term dymaxion, by which he meant “world-energy efficient.”

You might know Buckminster Fuller – if you know him at all – as the inventor of the geodesic dome. But Bucky was more than that: a relentless inventor, an architect and designer, an observer of workplace processes, and a practical philosopher.

I have a special appreciation of the man. For a year in the mid-80s, I lived in his “summer house” in the tiny hamlet of Sunset on Deer Isle, Maine, pictured above. (He called it the “Sunclipse house” since, as he pointed out, the sun does not set; every 24 hours, the earth eclipses the sun.) Bucky had died only 18 months previously, so the house – built in the 1780 as a captain’s house – still had the hodgepodge of items any of us collect: a spare pair of eyeglasses, an eclectic book collection (it’s where I first discovered books by Thurber), a well-worn kitchen table, and the old-house “character” that’s spelled w-o-r-k. But since it was Bucky’s house, it also had items representing the man’s achievements and world view: a clear skyglobe in the kitchen, plans for a “big dome project” to cover the house that had slipped behind his desk, a hand-built wooden canoe on the front porch (given to him in the south seas), a rickshaw in the cellar.

And, of course, the house had a complete set of every book Buckminster Fuller ever wrote. Which meant that, during that year, we read a fair amount of the man’s work, in the setting where he wrote much of it. It was quite a library, even though most of his books are now out of print; best-known perhaps is his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, but there were probably a dozen books. It was a special place and a special time during which I had the opportunity to learn from a very wise person who was unafraid to think differently.

One anecdote has stayed with me for all these years. It was part of an explanation of “what dymaxion means.” I apologize that I cannot tell you from which book the story came; I’m recalling this from my imperfect memory. (I only own one of his books, Synergetics: Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking, and it’s not in that one.)

Most of the online definitions of dymaxion describe it as “a cross between DYnamic, MAXimum, and tensiON” but as I came to understand it, Bucky meant it to encompass a holistic consciousness of world efficiency. It’s not just “how to streamline life to work best for me,” but rather “how do we use everyone’s energy in a way that maximizes productivity.” (And yes, I named my Maine Coon cat Dymaxion. Though “world energy efficient” is not the way to describe any cat.)

Bucky’s example was a line of people standing in line waiting to speak to a bank teller. This was long before the days of automated teller machines (ATMs), of course. If you had any business to do with the bank – anything from cashing a check to applying for a loan – it was done in-person.

As Bucky explained, ordinarily a bank’s understanding of “being efficient” was in the direction of saving money – by which it meant, “hire as few bank tellers as possible.” However, if 15 people have to wait in line for an average of 20 minutes, that adds up to 5 hours of lost productivity by the bank’s customers. Those 5 hours would largely be billable, which means the bank loses the income that’d be produced and then deposited into the customers’ bank accounts. He did the math, as I recall, and concluded that reducing the number of bank tellers by one teller cost the bank three times as much as they’d pay her.

So, Bucky explained, being dymaxion means you’re taking into account everyone’s needs, not just the business-as-itself. It encompasses customer service (because if you treat customers as though their time matters, they notice), and resource investments, and what you choose to automate. When you do that, he asserted, you win.

(I was amused by this anecdote because I suspected he thought of it while waiting in line at our tiny branch of the Bar Harbor Bank. The time spent in line certainly demonstrated the truth of his story.)

Bucky died before ATMs became common, but he certainly would have appreciated them. One of the hallmarks of automation is that it streamlines predictable processes. The idea is to minimize the time people spend on “ordinary” things that can be solved with an algorithm – such as making bank deposits or backing up laptop computers.

Most people stop there, and sell it to the CIO as cost savings. But the more important benefit is that, when the automatable tasks are not a distraction, everyone gets and gives better customer service and can work in the direction of better user experience. The staff can spend their time with the customers who have unique problems and who need their undivided attention. Those problems are also, not parenthetically, the more interesting problems to solve, which result in happier staff.

If you work in IT, particularly on the front lines, you know how tiresome it is to answer the same old questions. People on IT help desks, sysadmins, and other tech support people don’t mind working with users who have non-standard problems to solve – they’re more interesting – but surely there’s a way to minimize the tedium of “Why am I answering this again?”

There is, of course: Automate the things that make sense, so users can solve their own problems without assistance or even dedicated attention. (Such as automating backup.) Make as much of your tech support system as possible available in a self-help system on your corporate website, starting with an FAQ that really is the most frequently asked questions.

That’s just two of the benefits mentioned in our white paper, 17 Business Benefits of Endpoint Backup:

Empowering end users to help themselves. Even if an employee leaves a laptop at home or damages a file, he can access data instantly via the Druva inSync client, empowering them to restore files on their own without ever having to contact IT. This significantly reduces overhead, freeing up IT’s time to focus on other projects rather than handling these types of support requests.


Reduction in frontline IT time. A typical IT team spends significant time responding to end user requests for recovering lost files and devices. With Druva inSync deployed, the IT team spends less time on frontline support. In one customer case, more than 90% of calls for backup support went away after end users were able to do restores without IT help. With fewer help desk calls about lost files, the time spent managing lost devices is reduced significantly.

Naturally, I’d like it if you read the rest of the Druva backup benefits, because one of the advantages of what we do is – in my humble opinion – demonstrating Bucky’s dymaxion view about working in a way that respects users’ time and productivity.

But I exhort you to think beyond backup. Consider how Buckminster Fuller’s advice might apply to your own business processes. In what ways can you make life better for the users and customers whom we serve?

More about Buckminster Fuller:



Esther Schindler

Esther Schindler, Druva's editor, has been writing for the tech press since 1992, and has been editor at industry publications since the late 90s. Her name is on the cover of about a dozen books, most recently The Complete Idiot's Guide to Twitter Marketing.

Esther quilts (with enthusiasm if little skill), is a top Amazon reviewer, and is an avid foodie. She works from her home in Scottsdale, Arizona, with one of two cats on her lap.

1 Comment

  1. Tim Wessels 2 years ago

    Well, I did know Bucky Fuller when I worked for him from 1973-1979 when he was the World Fellow in Residence at the University City Science Center in Philadelphia. I also remember the house in Sunset on Deer Isle from a summer in 1974 or 1975 when several us from Bucky’s office staff went there in August to do some painting and hang out there and on Bear Island where Bucky stayed every August. The house in Sunset was primarily for Mrs. Fuller, who did care for the rustic charm of life on Bear Island, which had no running water or electricity. I can still remember going out in the evening from the house to photograph the “sunclipse” over the Camden Hills across Penobscot Bay. For the past 20 years my wife and I have made almost annual visits to Stonington on Deer Isle from our home in southwestern New Hampshire to go day-sailing on Penobscot Bay and enjoy one of the most beautiful areas on the Maine coast. We always drive out from Stonington on Route 15A so we can pass the house in Sunset. BTW, there were ATMs in the mid-to-late 1970s because I remember using one in the Provident bank across Market Street from Bucky’s office. Thanks for recalling your special time in Bucky’s house in Sunset.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *