”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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Electronic Health Records: ”A disease in need of a cure”, says NY Times

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)

NY Times article about personal scribes helping doctors to handle the growing demands of e-health systemsThis 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 refuted again 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.

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Featuritis vs. the Happy User Peak

Not new, but Kathy Sierra’s Featuritis-curve is too good to not repeat at the beginning of the year.

The Featuritis Curve by Kathy Sierra

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.

Feature-rich screenshot

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.)

See also: “Your stupid system makes me fat!” (Dec 23, 2013).

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“Your stupid system makes me fat!”

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.

The participants who memorized the seven-digit number were nearly 50% more likely than the other group to choose cake over fruit.

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.

Kathy comments:

”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)

More Kathy Sierra goodness: Featuritis vs. the Happy User Peak (Jan 1, 2014).

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Coming: Keynote at Intranets2014

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.

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Who SUNCS at your office? Probably everyone.

So you’ve heard about BYOD. But not about SUNCS. Yet it is probably more widespread; odds are that you have more than one co-worker in your office that SUNCS. It is rarely acknowledged – but in fact, it permeates many organizations.

SUNCS stands for Secretly Using Non-Corporate Software – because the usability of systems inside corporations is far behind what is available to us as consumers.

In 2012, for example, it transpired that officials at the Swedish State Department regularly used Gmail or Hotmail (translated) for communication with Swedish embassies, diplomats and other agencies (translated) – and that even the Secretary of State himself, Mr. Carl Bildt, did it.

Portrait of Carl Bildt, with text Carl Bildt SUNCS at workThrough his press secretary, Mr. Bildt casually remarked that the official e-mail system of the 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).

The unique thing was not the practice in itself, nor that it happened in the highest political circles. Having done some work for the government as a consultant, I’ve found SUNCS at many levels. Unique, though, was that it was so matter-of-factly admitted, by the highest boss as well. (Probably Carl Bildt, famous for being a ”Teflon politician”, was the only one who could have gotten away with it.)

Secretly Using Non-Corporate Software, or SUNCS, is in fact widespread in most organizations. Some typical examples:

  • Although Sharepoint might be the prescribed company platform for storing documents, it is so hard to find anything on it, that colleagues will share documents via Dropbox instead.
  • While there might be a budget forecasting system in the org, in reality people will use Excel – afterwards spending time adapting the result so it fits in the awkward format of the ”official” software.
  • And instead of the cumbersome corporate project planning system, people will book meetings with services like Doodle and organize collaboration through brilliant and simple, easy-to-use apps like Trello.

SUNCS is probably much bigger than BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), since you can do it without attracting the immediate attention of the IT department – or co-workers. It is often known to everyone, though, but not talked openly about.

And by no means is SUNCS unique to Sweden. In August 2013, it was discovered that doctors at the Oregon Health Sciences University stored information about several thousand patients on Google Drive – and had been doing so for the past two years.

So what is the problem when someone SUNCS? In some cases, there might be a security concern when external or cloud-based services are used for sensitive information. (At the Swedish State Department, eventually someone accidentally did send secret documents through the wrong channel.) On the other hand, in the light of recent events, even the security of ”official” services is seriously in doubt.

To me, the most interesting thing with SUNCS is that it points at ”the elephant in the room” that no one speaks openly about: the poor usability of enterprise systems. The co-worker that SUNCS is probably just trying to do her job in the best possible way, avoiding time-wasting struggles with awkward, outdated and inefficient systems.

About the Oregon case, David Do, who is both an MD and an agile software developer, writes that

”… this incident pretty much highlights the sorry state of information systems within the hospital and the unfulfilled need by physicians for tools that facilitate workflow and patient care.”

What the Recent Data Breach Says About the State of Health IT
(The Health Care Blog, Aug 11, 2013)

Doctors (in Oregon and elsewhere) need a short summary of each patient’s health and treatment, David Do explains. But the Electronic Medical Record system used does not have a good way to store information in that format (instead, EMRs are often so full of detail that vital information is hidden). Additionally, a doctor has no way of editing a summary in real-time to communicate with co-workers what still needs to be done – other than Google Drive. (Do read the comments to David’s piece, too – they’re very clarifying about the current state of most software.)

The extent to which people SUNCS shows that the investment the company did in whatever system people are supposed to use, is wasted.

And if people first use non-corporate software to get their job done, and then must ”adapt and insert” their work into the official system, every task takes twice the time – adding to inefficiency.

SUNCS was here before BYOD, and is probably bigger. And unless we take on the problems with enterprise software that sucks, it will grow even bigger. An older generation of workers toiled under their systems, not aware that there were simpler, more effective ways of accomplishing the same task. A younger generation will without doubt compare the awkward user experiences with services that they’re used to – Facebook, Dropbox, Gmail, Spotify, and many others – that they have access to as consumers, and simply not put up with lagging enterprise software.

The gap between enterprise and consumer software is widening. Enterprise software needs to catch up. We can, and must, demand consumer-grade usability at work, too.
Update: Hillary Clinton joins the campaign 😉 (March 11, 2015)

* * *

Related reading: The doctor that rocks the mouse
What’s the waiter doing with the computer screen?

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