When ”delightful complexity” is relevant – and when it’s not

man facing big complicated diagram on a whiteboard
When I (and others) argue that computer systems in the workplace should be less confusing, and easier to use, the notion of “delightful complexity” often comes up – perhaps as a question from the audience. For example, that happened last week at the Enterprise UX conference in San Antonio.

The idea is that we actually enjoy mastering complicated things. You feel good when you’ve taken on a tough challenge – and solved it. Like a 10,000-pieces puzzle, a very hard piano piece, or cooking a very intricate dish out of the classic French cuisine. And by the way, housewives liked the cake mix more when they had to add an egg. So perhaps you really should make systems, apps and services harder to use, and make them a real challenge?

But there are strong limitations to “delightful complexity” that are important to understand, if we are to apply it to people’s workplaces.

The most important is that delightful complexity only applies to what people feel is the core of their work, to things that are closely related to their professional goals – and not to what they perceive as administrative chores.

In other words: a physicist, say, might gladly put in a lot of effort to master a super complicated electron microscope, regardless of a primitive or right down ugly interface–and be proud of it. But she will crash and burn when using the perhaps less ugly time reporting or travel expense system.

When we create applications that are not closely related to the workers’ goals and their professional image of themselves – like most administrative work – the sytems or services have to be super-Apple-simple.

Otherwise, they will find their own SUNC-powered workarounds. Or suffer a cognitive load that might eventually lead to health problems like stress.

Don Norman put it this way: products can be complex, but excessive complexity creates confusion.

Oh, and by the way, that story about delightful complexity in form adding an egg to a cake mix is not really true.

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Proud recipient of the Grand Prize for Human-Computer Interaction

stimdi's grand prize

I’m extremely proud to be the recipient of Sweden’s finest award in human-computer interaction: Stimdis’s Grand Prize.
Stimdi is the Swedish professional organisation for everyone active in HCI, in interaction design (IXD), user experience (UX), information architecture (IA) and all the other labels of our general profession; i.e. to make digital technology easier to use and more valuable to people.

Stimdi made the following announcement at the prize ceremony:

”With his book ‘Jävla skitsystem’ [‘Stupid bloody system’] – which has attracted much media attention – and through other work including consulting, lecturing and blogging, Jonas has revealed the problems of poor usability to many outside our business.
One of our constant difficulties, working in human-computer interaction, is poor ‘disease awareness’ among our clients and suppliers: Jonas has disseminated his invaluable views not only through the written word but also, in person, thanks to his quick-fire banter.”

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At last, in English

Finally – a translation into English of my book ”Jävla skitsystem” (”Stupid xxxx system”) is in the works. Translator John-Eje Thelin/Mastered Ideas has started the job.

John-Eje is an old friend, but most of all an excellent translator – with a great sense of humor. Since many have pointed out that the book is very funny (which I wasn’t quite aware of myself), that was very important!

Ever since the first Swedish edition came out in 2010, a lot of people have asked, ”When will it be published in English?” So, why the long waiting time?

Me being generally sloppy very busy, I guess. A deeper reason is that that book is framed in the Nordic concept of a total ”work environment”. There isn’t any direct equivalent in English. In the Anglo-Saxon world, basically, a much narrower concept of ”occupational safety and hazards” is used: It’s mostly about hard hats, protective glasses, and things like that.

However, recently it has become clear that the concepts ”digital workplace” and ”digital work experience” can carry the same meaning as the Swedish concept.

Another concern is that my thoughts also come from a mindset special to the Nordic countries: a commitment to conversation and dialogue between employees and management, decent trade unions, and empowerment of employees, even giving them power over how their workplace is designed.

That is not as self-evident in many parts of the world, where criticism of the ”work environment” might result in a ”So you don’t like to work here? Fine, clean your desk.”

The English edition will therefore focus more on the consequences for productivity and efficiency.

It will take several months, but I’m very much looking forward to the job!

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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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