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).
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.
”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.”
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).
So the response from the audience was quite good, both in the room and on Twitter.
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.”
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:
I guess they’re supposed to work like incantations – or perhaps instruments of exorcism?
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?
In most industries, automation leads to increased efficiency, even employee layoffs. In health care, it seems, the computer has created the need for an extra human in the exam room. A Busy Doctor’s Right Hand, Ever Ready to Type (Jan 12, 2014)
This New York Times article is a devastating reality-check of the state of health care in advanced countries, which have invested heavily in electronic health records (EHRs) and related systems.
Claims – often from both government and IT companies – that the technology would increase efficiency have now been refutedagain and again. Instead, the systems lead to increased stress and workplace health problems. “Chronically exhausted and feeling enslaved to the computer”, Dr. Jennifer Sewing describes her situation.
”Electronic health records have become a disease in need of a cure,” NY Times concludes.
The somewhat paradoxical solution is to give doctors a personal scribe, to handle the systems. Nearly 10,000 scribes are said to be working in hospitals and medical practices around the US, with demand rising quickly.
The personal scribe or assistant feels like a life-saving solution for the burdened doctors. Dr. Sewing, a family medicine practitioner, “used to spend late nights at her computer finishing electronic patient charts”. Now, she can relax and get a good night’s sleep.
But is this really sustainable? Health care will then be faced with increasing costs for both supposedly time-saving technology and for more staff.
A change has got to come: More usable software – but also a huge reduction in the clerical, administrative load that, in fact, the systems have helped to produce.
To show a real-life example, from 2013: this interface from an enterprise system has 11 menus, 14 tabs, 9 buttons, around 20 icons with other functions, some scroll bars, more than 50 fields (just under this menu/tab-combination). Menus and tabs are even repeated in a left-hand navigation.
Although many of the functions may be necessary, even vital, the design is a hopeless clutter that puts a completely unnecessary strain on the user’s cognitive resources. (In the most recent version of the system I saw, the number of tabs had increased to 20.)
One of my points is that stupid IT systems put a heavy cognitive load on the users. Cognitive processing – aka ”to have to think” – is actually hard work. We can see it in rising levels of stress and “workplace fatigue” – but in fact, also in experiments.
The brain’s main fuel is sugar. Kathy Sierra at Serious Pony tells us about an experiment where half the participants were asked to memorize seven-digit numbers, and the other half to memorize two-digit numbers. Afterwards, they were offered a choice of snacks.
Complicated systems make you fat – from Serious Pony
It turned out, seven-number memorizers were much more likely to choose cake than the two-number memorizers (who preferred fruit).
In fact, I’ve observed that exact task performed many times a day while studying actual people at work: memorizing and trying to recall long, complicated passwords. Or having to memorize a social security number from one system, and entering it in another.
”If your app is confusing and your tech support / FAQ isn’t helpful, you’re drawing down my scarce, precious, cognitive resources. If your app behaves counter-intuitively – even just once – I’ll leak cog resources every time I use it (…)
And when I back away from the screen and walk to the kitchen … Your app makes me fat.”
(Your app makes me fat. Serious Pony, 24 July 2013)
I am deeply honoured to have been invited to give a keynote at the Intranets2014 conference in Sydney, Australia, in May 2014. And of course very excited, too!
Thanks to the lovely people at Step Two Designs, who organises the conference. You should know that Step Two is widely regarded as the world’s foremost intranet experts. Check out their excellent books, for example.
The term “intranet” is increasingly giving way to the term “digital workplace”. Though not perfect, it pretty well sums up how today’s workplaces are immersed in digital technology.
But while most of the new digital services and products that we can enjoy at home, as consumers, are smooth and pleasant, many of the systems in the workplace are still ugly, arcane and cumbersome to work with. And the gap is actually widening. But why? And what are the consequences? And what can we do about it? I’ll try to address some of those questions in the keynote.
”Stupid ****** system!” is certainly something that many people have muttered at work; over computer systems, databases, intranets that are hard to navigate and impossible to comprehend – but that you have to use, nevertheless.
Badly designed and implementd computer systems have created several new kinds of work-related stress. And the gap between the many burdensome systems we are forced to use at work, and the smart, pleasant applications we use as consumers (as in our smartphones), is actually widening.
Furthermore, IT systems are a major force behind the re-shaping work towards more and more 'command and control', and behind the rise of the 'audit society' and a "Bureaucracy 2.0" in many organisations.
This is a blog about the problems, and the solutions.
I'm an senior information architect and UX specialist since 1994. Pioneer in digital ergonomics. Concerned about the rise of Bureaucracy2.0
I mostly do in-depth user studies and create high-level concepts.
I've worked with IKEA, the Swedish Government, the Swedish Parliament, Council of Europe, and many others.
In 2012, I was appointed by the Swedish government to the newly-formed National Forum on Usability and Accessibility, a strategic group in charge of advancing UX-oriented methods in Sweden.
”I would make it mandatory reading …”
The bestseller book "Jävla skitsystem!" ("Stupid bloody system!", in Swedish) was published in 2010. It has been hailed as "an eye-opener" and "a breakthrough", and has reached audiences far outside the design and user experience communities.