Saturday, March 27, 2010

Why everyone should get a degree in IT.

In order to use computers, software and the Internet, basically everyone should be a graduated IT engineer. After all these years and with all the capabilities we have, users are still confronted with a wide variety interfaces and system behaviours of which many struggle to cope with.

During our SharePoint roll-out project, we found that users had to adapt so much to the new way of working that they came up with questions and problems of which we as a support team could not have come up with in our wildest dreams.

Though trained, staff really needed the time get used to the new interface and to new concepts such as check-in/check-out, managing access rights, etc. It turned out that the concept of working with a file system was so ingrained in peoples thinking that it seemed almost impossible to adjust to a new way of working. Besides that, other existing systems had the capability to load files from the file system but not from SharePoint.

Though we made progress as a business, we once again confronted the users with limitations of technology with respect to the usability and integration.

When you think of it, you deal on a day to day basis with a wide variety of user interfaces, all presented to you via the same device. Even the presentation and behaviour of products of a single vendor are not always consistent and even within a single product you can find various inconsistencies in the presentation and behaviour. While we are now rolling out the latest Windows Operating system with latest and greatest features, our ERP system lags years behind. And on top of that we are building our custom applications and again they present themselves differently.

The large number of tools, technologies, interfaces, abstract concepts and the rapid pace that it changes simply means that people also require much assistance. IT support is an essential and integral part of business operations. Service desk staff have become real life savers.

It is not only the user interface that many people struggle with, it is also the terminology and the ability to make a mental picture of how the information and system functions relate to each other and how the systems behave. And once you think you have mastered it, the systems change.

Gillian Andrews  wrote a great post “Web Illiteracy: How Much Is Your Fault?” in the blog ReadWriteWeb. It talks about how confusing the Web is with its terminology such as “submitting a form” and a “URL”. It points out very well the problems that many people have with the Internet and the systems we provide through it. Concepts that have become simple for most of the active Internet users, for a large part of the global population they remain a mystery.

I remember when I tried to teach a friend to use the computer many years ago. The first basic concept was to explain what a file and a folder was (called “directory” in those days). My friend had a huge problem grasping these abstract concepts. I needed to visualise this by using boxes of different sizes and putting books inside those boxes. And then translate these concepts in commands such as “cd a:\docs\”. He went through all this effort to pain his brain only to assure that he would not be too illiterate when his newborn baby would be older. He had no real life use for it.

But for organisations time spent on learning how to use the computer and the software, is just not time spent on running the business.

Interface design is not an easy task. When discussing the user interface for our in-house developed system the other day, we found that you cannot satisfy all users. What is good for the one, might be unpractical for the other. Making the system adaptable to the needs of different users would not only introduce extra complexity but also make the system more expensive.

What we do is weigh the cost and the direct need to have a solution against the complexity and the limitations of the solution. If the benefit is high enough, you accept the limitations.

In the 80s, I was always puzzled by the huge uptake of PC’s. People had to fight their way through operating systems such as MSDOS and Windows. Microsoft’s success was all driven by the fact that they provided sufficient functionality for an acceptable price. Many might argue that there were better options such as Apple’s MacIntosh, however who wants an operating system in the first place? An operating system is there to run the computer and to hide the underlying complexity of the hardware and machine instructions from applications that run on top of it. As an end user you don’t want to be confronted with an operating system.

We are so keen to use the technology that we accept all the limitations and problems that it comes with. Vendors release software and technology to the end user community while realistically you would say it is not end user ready yet. The level of usability and robustness we accept in software and computers is simply not acceptable in the car or aeroplane industry. But because we are so eager, it is too easy money for the software creators.

We have made much progress over time. But because we can do so much more, it also becomes so much more complex. Mentally people need to deal with all this abstract complexity of interlinked data and application behaviour. Not everybody can do this easily.

The cloud and virtualisation of the desktop might be a solution to simplify the hardware and remove much of the operating system from the user, provided that your data is secure and you have the bandwidth on your internet connection. It will take some time to grow into all this, but there are benefits.

I don’t think the cloud is the answer for everything. If it resolves something, it will be more in relation to hardware and capacity management than anything in relation to usability. ERP systems in the cloud are still ERP systems. They need to be upgraded and because companies have their own configurations and their own customisations and have different requirements in relation to new features, you will remain having dedicated installations. For the business it still means that you will run with the same problems of managing your ERP and the same issues with data integration. Google gets a lot of attention these days and they come up with many appealing solutions but it won’t be long until they will run in similar issues as Microsoft and other large ERP vendors who need to keep so many different customers happy.

My experience is that with the few applications that we run in the cloud, we actually created extra standalone data repositories. For some systems this is all fine. But for others the benefit of having Software as a Service comes with the disadvantage of extra logins, management of duplicate data and custom development of required data integration. We only shift our problems to the cloud. You need to think the consequences through very well.

We have come far. We have learned a lot about user interfaces and ease of use. The iPhone is a typical example of a great success to make technology simple. (At least until the battery is wearing out.) But the complexity and level of abstraction that we need to deal with has grown in the same pace as the technology advancement. User interfaces will remain different as long as vendors and developers have the need to distinguish themselves from the rest and technology changes in a rapid pace.

Projects such as our SharePoint implementation and other in-house development projects, often lead me to question why we cannot make it all more intuitive and easier to use for the end user. I know the answer. It is practically impossible to achieve. There are too many parties involved and it would require a global universal standard that is updated on every system and every device roughly at the same time. That might still be millennia away and until then we just have to accept it as it is. Good is good enough.

Human society just has to swim the waves of technology invention. Some of us swim for fun and enjoy every wave but others have trouble to keep their head above the water. Let’s jut hope that not too many of us drown. Our service desk staff and trainers have the honourable task as life savers.

1 comment:

  1. I think this is the best one yet! I particularly like the vignette about files.

    I am reading a book right now called ‘You Are Not a Gadget’ by Jaron Lanier and he goes hard too on the file/folder idea.Here is a hilite I excerpted reading on the weekend on my Kindle.

    Your highlight and note at location 246
    Entrenched Software Philosophies Become Invisible Through Ubiquity An even deeper locked-in idea is the notion of the file. Once upon a time, not too long ago, plenty of computer scientists thought the idea of the file was not so great. The first design for something like the World Wide Web, Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, conceived of one giant, global file, for instance. The first iteration of the Macintosh, which never shipped, didn’t have files. Instead, the whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page. Steve Jobs took the Mac project over from the fellow who started it, the late Jef Raskin, and soon files appeared. UNIX had files; the Mac as it shipped had files; Windows had files. Files are now part of life; we teach the idea of a file to computer science students as if it were part of nature. In fact, our conception of files may be more persistent than our ideas about nature. I can imagine that someday physicists might tell us that it is time to stop believing in photons, because they have discovered a better way to think about light—but the file will likely live on. The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh. The ideas expressed by the file include the notion that human expression comes in severable chunks that can be organized as leaves on an abstract tree— and that the chunks have versions and need to be matched to compatible applications. What do files mean to the future of human expression? This is a harder question to answer than the question “How does the English language influence the thoughts of native English speakers?” At least you can compare English speakers to Chinese speakers, but files are universal. The idea of the file has become so big that we are unable to conceive of a frame large enough to fit around it in order to assess it empirically.

    I believe you are correct on the notes about the Cloud. Perhaps this will make for another blog post.

    It is interesting - we often speak about data format standards or technology protocols but rarely do we see 'standards' in the space of interface design. It seems the norm here is 'make as unique and cutting edge of an interface as possible so your site looks cooler than the next guys' and 'to heck with the users'.

    pg

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