Keynote at Nordic Ergonomics Society’s 47th annual conference

Last week, I gave the closing keynote at Nordic Ergonomics Society annual conference, in Lillehammer, Norway. It was called ”Stupid bloody system: Why usability fails”.

You can view and download the slides from Speakerdeak.

Presenting at NES2015
Picture from tweet by Linda Björk

Giving keynote at NES
Picture from tweet by Christina Jonsson

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”Well-functioning IT” more important than high salary to employees, new study finds

What do employees value most for their job satisfaction? When 1,027 men and women in Sweden were asked, 82 percent answered “high salary” – perhaps not very surprising.

But it turned out that another factor was even more important: “well-functioning, trouble-free IT systems”. Nearly 9 out of 10 (87 percent) included that in their answers, putting it on top of of the list of what’s important for employee satisfaction.

When the same survey was conducted in 2011, high salary and trouble-free IT systems shared the first place. But now well-functioning IT has taken the lead.

This certainly reflects how all-pervasive digital systems have become in almost every workplace. But it also indicates that ill-functioning, badly designed digital systems at work have been a serious headache for an overwhelming majority of workers.

The survey was made by TNS Sifo in March 2015. The respondents were men and women between 25 and 64. All respondents used mobile phones and laptops provided by their employer. They worked in organizations with at least 10 employees.

Source: CIO Sweden, April 30 2015 (in English via Google translate)

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Big Data in the digital workplace: the high-tech dream

The post Tomorrow's technology, yesterday's insights from Medium

I have a piece over at Medium, called Tomorrow’s technology, yesterday’s insights. It’s about how the tech industry now tries to convince HR that big data, harvested through surveillance of employees, is a must-have – and the roots and implications of that.

And why are the industry’s supposedly exemplary discoveries so totally underwhelming? Why did Google have to invest heavily in data mining to find out something that’s been well known for fifty years (largely thanks to a process called ”democracy”)?

And was it really a surprise when big data generated from wearable GPS trackers showed that nurses at a Florida hospital were spending their days racing back and forth, across the hospital?

”Again, I have a modest proposal: you’ll find out the same thing by simply asking the nurses.

Or even better, by spending a day walking in their shoes. Then you might even realise that your business would run more smoothly if the nurses were allowed to organise their work themselves, rather than being ‘assigned’ tasks by someone — or something — with no first-hand, real-world knowledge of their environment.”

As Paul Robert Lloyd notes, ”Give technologists a problem, and they’ll try and solve it with technology.”

I belive that the biggest problem here, however, is the neo-Taylorist notion of a clueless workforce that needs to be led by an all-powerful, benevolent leadership, one that makes decisions on their behalf.

Sometimes the tech world comes up with has already been tried and rejected and really doesn’t need to be resurrected.

Go read it.

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We demand consumer-grade usability at the office!

Carl Bildt and Hillary Clinton deman consumer-grade usability at the office

We’re very happy to welcome the distinguished Secretary of State, Ms. Hillary Clinton to the ranks of our campaign for consumer-grade usability in enterprise software. She joins her colleague, the former Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Carl Bildt, who also used private e-mail during his time in office.

Like millions of people over the world, they have realised that the software and IT systems of their organisations aren’t really up to scratch. So basically, everyone SUNCS – Secretly Uses Non-Corporate Software – simply to get his or her important job done.

The private e-mail is much ”more convenient” , Ms. Clinton admitted to the NYTimes. Mr. Bildt already in 2012 remarked that the official e-mail system of the Swedish Government was so hard to use that he didn’t bother with it but for the most sensitive documents and messages (a bit in English here).

With their combined efforts, we’re certain that the campaign will be successful. There’s hope that the plight of so many, that hate the piece of shit software that they have to use at work, will soon be over. Venceremos!

Photo: US Embassy of Sweden/flickr under cc-license.

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Digital tractors and combines too hard to handle

New tractors, combines and other farm equipment are so full of digital bells and whistles, that they’re becoming hard to use and extremley hard to maintain and fix, says Wired:

”Farm auction expert Greg Peterson noted that demand for newer tractors was falling. Tellingly, the price of and demand for older tractors (without all the digital bells and whistles) has picked up. ‘There’s an increasing number of farmers placing greater value on acquiring older simpler machines that don’t require a computer to fix.’ ”
New High-Tech Farm Equipment Is a Nightmare for Farmers, (Feb 5, 2015).

Modern skördetröska

Wired puts this in the context of ”open source”. The tractor software is proprietary, which makes it impossible to modify its behavior. So make the software open, the magazine says.
But there are at least two other possible ways to look at increased frustration and falling demand.
Is it rather the design and usability – or lack thereof – that is the problem for a majority? Even if the software was possible to hack, should it really be necessary for a farmer to also be a programmer?
Could it also be that the digital ”bells and whistles” – even if they’re hackable – hasn’t been worth the money? Is the return on investment simply to small; hence the demand for simpler, more robust technology?

Anyway, this is another reminder that the digitla workplace is not just a white-collar issue: just about any profession is about to become more and more digital.

Photo: Lee Cannon: Delaware State Fair/flickr under cc-license

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”On the unusability of internal systems”

On a more serious note (than the last post): Leisa Reichelt, who is Head of User Research at the Government Digital Service in the UK Cabinet Office, has a great post On the unusability of internal systems at her blog disambiguity.

the thick notebook of a worker at a flight check-in desk - scribbled notes and post-its with help and instructions for all the systems she has to use

”Joy’s notebook is about two inches thick, she’s created an A-Z index for it, it is packed full of handwritten notes about how to do different tasks in the various system she uses – steps that need following, codes that need inputting. (..)
She told me that each time they upgrade the system it seems to get harder, not easier, to use. Joy told me that all the customer service reps have a notebook like this. You can’t use the systems without one. Joy is digitally literate and confident with the computer, but it is impossible to use without the notebook.”

If you want to hear more from or connect with Leisha, she’ll be speaking at the From Business To Buttons conference in Stockholm, April 21 2015.

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OT: Calvin’s creator’s computer cooperation worries

”And so we worked through the technological problems via email.
And unlike every other technological problem I’ve ever had, it was not frustrating.
It was the highlight of my career.

A bit off-topic, but it is Friday, ain’t it? Comic artist Stephan Pastis on an unexpected cooperation: Ever Wished That Calvin and Hobbes Creator Bill Watterson Would Return to the Comics Page? Well, He Just Did. (June 7, 2014).

pearls before swine strip by stephan pastis

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Keynote at Intranets2014 in Sydney

keynote at intranets 2014 in Sydney

Photo: Rebecca Jackson/StepTwo.

I will confess to being a bit nervous before my keynote – ”The digital workplace: how to avoid Parkinson’s Law and Bureaucracy 2.0” – at the Intranets2014 conference in Sydney.

Would an Australian audience recognize the dilemmas I was to speak about? Would they buy the assumption behind the talk: that we have a certain right to demand that the place we work should be decent to humans? And that we have a right to have our say, also in the workplace?

These are fundamental European, perhaps Nordic, values. In many parts of the world – the US, for example – I suspect they just would not make sense to many people. Executives and owners rule; end of story. If you’re not happy, clear your desk.

But what about Australia?


Fantastic sketchnote by Rebecca Jackson/StepTwo. Click to see more! CC-license BY-NC-ND 2.0

What I realized was that Australia share many fundamental values with Europe (as evident by public health care, public transport, trade unions, etc).

It was also clear that the trend of more and more command and control, documentation and administration is strong in Australia, too. And the country has been hit hard by several stupid digital systems. For example the Myki public transport ticket system in Victoria or the federal payroll system fiasco in Queensland. And troubled – seriously troubled – attempts to implement digital solutions in health care (more in an upcoming blog post).

So the response from the audience was quite good, both in the room and on Twitter.

Jonas at Intranets2014

Instigating the masses at the Intranets keynote in Sydney. Photo: Rebecca Jackson/StepTwo.


And I’m very happy to share that I got the highest rating – Excellent – by 78 % of the people listening, and second highest, Good, by 16 % (94% in all.) A few comments from the post-conference surveys:

”Jonas Soderstrom: His insights were so clear and made me look at my whole project and its objectives in a new way. Also very entertaining!”
”Jonas Söderström was outstanding and particularly inspiring.”
”Jonas Söderström – very unique perspective and highly entertaining.”
”Jonas- so different and fresh. A different way of thinking and intellectually challenging.”
”I can’t put a finger of what was so special about Jonas, but I was hanging on his every word.”

A huge thanks to StepTwo for the fantastic opportunity to come to Australia. Intranets was a great and friendly conference with a lot of brilliant speakers (see all of Rebecca Jackson’s sketchnotes here), and StepTwo are excellent organizers; I really recommend you to visit it next year if you have the opportunity. (And if not, you should definitely get some of their excellent books. Highly recommended!)

My presentation is here on Slideshare:

And by the way, I found some new followers – or they found me – down under too:
Några ivriga "followers"

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”A key for every computer frustration”

cup with mock computer keys with texts like No! and Shit!

If you feel that there’s nothing much you can do about the IT problems you face in the workplace … you might finally, in desperation, turn to magic. In a small shop in Seattle, among many other cups and boxes with lucky charms, stones with zodiac signs and crystals with alleged magic properties, I found these little darlings:

tangenter small

I guess they’re supposed to work like incantations – or perhaps instruments of exorcism?

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The doctor that rocks the mouse

Henrik Ahlén was bewildered. Each of the three computers he was looking at was connected to a humming test tube rocker (the machine that rocks your blood test sample, so it won’t coagulate).

But something wasn’t right. These computers were not placed in a laboratory. The scene was a waiting room at the Department of Rheumatology in a Swedish hospital. So why the test tube rockers – and why were the computer mice placed on the trays of the small machines?

At this hospital in Stockholm, Sweden, patients with arthritis have to fill in a self-evaluation before their appointment with their physician. The patients answer a number of questions about joint pain and stiffness.

Earlier, the self-evaluation was a bundle of paper. Now it’s digital – on those very computers in the waiting room. (That self-evaluation was the software Henrik Ahlén, veteran digital consultant, was working with now.) The big advantage of digital is that the data is entered directly into the patient’s Electronic Health Record, which saves a lot of time. When the patient meets her doctor, he/she already has a summary of the results on his screen, and they can discuss the best treatment.

But why on earth had someone put the humming and shaking test tube rockers there, and why place the computer mice on them?

It turned out, that all the computers in the hospital network where controlled by a central security system. After only a few minutes of inactivity, the system automatically shuts down all software running on the computer and logs out. This configuration was impossible to change, and the IT policy did not allow for any exceptions.

But patients show up at the rheumatology department irregularly, and not in every five minutes. So time and again, the computers in the waiting room were locked. Each and every time, a nurse or a doctor had to dash out in the waiting room and log in – a process that took considerable time. And all the time that was supposed to be saved disappeared!

Finally someone got the idea to place the computer mouse on the tray of the test tube rocker. This moves the cursor continually on the screen, and the computer won’t be logged out.

When Henrik interviewed the staff about the security system, they literary saw red. There were countless other difficulties and inconveniences with this and other systems in the workplace – and just a few of them could be solved with nifty workarounds.

There was actually one more of them at this computer station: Henrik noted that a post-it note covered the upper right corner of the screen. Why?


Well, when patients are ready, they’re supposed to press a ”Save” button on the screen. But a lot of them instead press the Windows’ ”Close” icon in the upper right corner (perhaps they were determined not to let the next person see their entries). But this also shuts down the machine, and the data they had entered were lost! Solution: cover the icon with a piece of paper or tape!

Just let me give you two conclusions.

First, to really find out what’s important to the users, and how a system is actually used, you need to spend time observing real users, in the field.

Second, it’s in the workplace we most often encounter these strange situations. It’s hard to imagine a consumer product so badly adapted to the needs of the users. At work, however, we encounter awkward and time-consuming (rather than time-saving) systems all the time. Why do we accept that?

(Thanks to Henrik Ahlén at AlfaBravo for sharing, and Pontus Rydin for editing help!)

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