Sunday, 5 October 2014

Do we make the most out of (computing) technology?

Typewritter photo
'Typewriter' by Reavenshoe Group
under a CC license
Sadly, the brief answer is no. Most of us have in our hands, at home or at work, computing or other electronic hardware that would have been considered pure fiction 20-30 years ago. Although we have changed the way we live and work due to technology, the steps forward we have made don't necessarily go hand in hand with the leaps in technology we have witnessed.

Of course there are exceptions to the observation above but let me mention a couple of examples and tell me whether they sound familiar or not.

At the place that I work, all employees have PCs. Their (the PCs') primary tasks are e-mail, word-processing and printing and web browsing (not necessarily in that order). Yes, sure, so people do some statistical analysis, some DTP and some database design and some feed input to a number of databases but, still, the majority of PC time is devoted to the three things I mentioned before.  You may think that the volume of work or the quality of the output has increased. Indeed, it may. But there is still a small number of regular PC users that treats word processing software closer to a typewriter than a modern PC. OK, I'm exaggerating here but I believe you can see my point.

The other major change has been in the field of mobile devices. Each smart phone is practically a small computer, powerful enough to handle not only calls and messages but also browsing, voip and video chat and practically most of the stuff that would run on a desktop computer. Do people use those features? Yes, some people use some of those. But some others seem to have problems with that new technology. The following infographic shows an approximate breakdown of the various uses of smart phones.

According to the infographic above, new stuff (web, search, social media, news. other) account to a moderate to low 24% of the time of smart phone use. An interesting question would be if the total time interacting with smart phones is higher than before, when we had plain mobile phones. I suspect it is.

So why can't we make more and different things now that we have such computing power in our hands?

I don't really know (I'll be doing some guessing here) but here are some possible reasons:
  • Bad design on the user interface. Yes, all manufacturers and software designer call their interfaces intuitive but that is not always the case. To make things worse, I don't believe that there is the perfect user-friendly, intuitive interface. It will always need persistence, imagination and luck to get to use an interface successfully. But there are design basics that can help. Below there is an early (very) critical review of Windows 8 (which btw I rather like as OS)

  • Crappy or buggy software; Software incompatibilities; Software complexity; Inconsistency across platforms and devices; Lack of decent manuals or efficient tutorials. Lack of user training (it sounds old fashioned but in some cases it could help).
  • Software cost and/ or poor use of open source software. This particular point always bugs me. It 's fine to pay for software that enhances productivity. But why do businesses avoid to invest in open source software in a coherent way? Especially in cases where the open source alternative proves better in usability, compatibility and, well, cost.
  • Hardware restrictions. Yes, you read correctly. We have plenty of processing power but we may be having other limitations that hinder full use of that power. For instance, smart phones can do a lot but they need to be reliably connected to a fast network. That comes at a cost that in many cases is undesirable or, even, excessive. Another example is modern PCs that are powerful but often they come with the minimum possible display estate. Just adding a second monitor would boost productivity (and save on printer paper) but the majority of workplaces I know of stick to small single monitors (often badly positioned in front of the user). Another all-too-common thing is policy restrictions in the use of PCs, some of which severely impact usability, especially when that is paired with an IT department that refuses to listen to the users' needs.
  • IT departments that are overloaded with the typical tasks and don't have the resources to add new capabilities to their systems (an extra programmer could do miracles under many circumstances).
  • No reliable communication between (casual) users and developers to assist new product development or product improvement (yes, there are beta testers and developers can gather telemetry data but this is not even close in magnitude to what I refer to).
The disappointing thing is that most of the problems above are not-so-hard to address. Maybe the entire product-market-user model needs some rethinking. Maybe developers and, possibly, manufacturers, need to put more effort on durable platforms and commit to their support for longer periods. And, finally, maybe we, the users, need to be more conscious of our options/ choices and voice our thoughts/ wishes/ concerns when needed. Just saying....

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