Thursday, December 14, 2006

Are we there yet?

Why technology needs to take 2-steps back to make 3-steps forward.
A slight departure from the human side of morale (unless you're in the field of software architecture).

The proliferation of technology within the workplace should have enabled corporate Britain (America, Asia or from wherever you are reading this) to have achieved far more than it has. This is not to say that without the technology we have we could have reached where we are now, but to ask if we could be further. Are we really reaping the benefits from what we have? The sad answer is no. In this article I hope to explain why.

For the sake of an example we’ll pick on Microsoft’s Excel. One of the most widely adopted business tools across the globe. Most of its users are aware how to open the application and fill in its little boxes. How many truly open up the raw power of the solution? Very few without a doubt! To declare fairness lets assume Pareto’s rule of 80/20, with 80% of Excel’s true capabilities going untouched. This is a dismal prospect for such a commonplace application.

With more specialized applications, applications designed to perform very specific functions for a well defined user group, you would anticipate that the percentage of power in use would be more favorable to the user’s accessibility. After all, this is not a grand tool that can span across the needs of a multitude of user types such as Excel. This is a tool that has been so carefully crafted that it only addresses a single community. The sad reality is that the weighting could even make the great Pareto whimper. Where most people with access to Excel will praise their use of it regardless of their inability to access its potential, specialist applications are prone to complete and utter abandonment.

What is possibly more shocking is that these specialist applications can even go through a series of versions, patches, hot-fixes… continual maintenance and redesign and yet the result can be precisely the same. Zero uptake.

As someone who works in User Centered Design I am accustomed to these realities and fight the good fight on behalf of the users I represent. The challenge for most designers in pursuit of user adoption is the legacy and constraints that exist before the fight even begins. If the battlefield is already heavily laden with landmines, then any tactics that involve a straight line across this minefield are instantly ruled out.

A business who has invested in a specific direction is inflexible to the possibility of change.

A technology that has invested in a specific direction is inflexible to the possibility of change.

A user that has invested in a specific direction is inflexible to the possibility of change.

And yet change is inevitable. It’s as if we were all building a never-ending skyscraper together constantly being filled with tenants and after 30 floors up, we realize we need to change 20 of them before we can go up any further. The business is loathed to do so as it creates expense and would affect the tenants that have already moved in to the skyscraper. The technologists are loathed to do so as it means undoing all the hard work done to date. And the users are loathed to do so as they are already challenged enough to be presented with a whole new way of doing things. And all 3 are fearful of the unknown – will it work? After all, when we first built the last 20 floors we were convinced it would work and yet now we’re being told that it didn’t.

Instead of creating expense, undoing hard work, being faced with greater challenge and not being certain it will work we make compromises. After all, compromises are good aren’t they? Everyone is happy in a compromise? The tenants are not going anywhere, or if the did, we’ll find others. The business will be fine. The technologists will be busy and the users – well, they’ll just have to cope.

Why would someone only use 20% of an application? Worse still, why would someone abandon an application entirely? And bigger still – why would a business continue to invest more in to building on top of something with such poor adoption only with the glimmer of hope that the users will become more accustomed to it over time?

Excel is simply the only generalist tool that can manage mathematical equations beyond a calculator or your own noggin, and outside of specialist applications. This makes the tool indispensable. Sure, there are other spreadsheet packages available, and yet the majority of office workers will have become accustomed to Excel over its competitors. If you wish to perform any lengthy mathematical equation then it is imperative that you have grasped the fundamental principles of a spreadsheet and therefore Excel.

When faced with an entirely new application to perform what to a user appears to be very similar calculations the first thing they do is find a workaround. Inevitably that workaround is Excel. And as all users form the business, the business becomes accepting of this resistance to use the new application and will either turn a blind-eye, try to enrich the application further (usually to see how they can incorporate the workaround – Excel) or abandon it entirely. Which one is dependent on cost and pride. And in my experience pride often being the most predominant factor.

So if people are using Excel by almost ‘rule’, then why is so little of its potential used?

When a specialist application is written to aid specific user communities perform complex mathematical equations why do user’s abandon this to revert to the under utilized Excel once again?

What becomes even more bizarre when you delve in to this topic to the depths as I have, you will be in total awe to why a business would buy in a specialist application to perform the functions that Excel could do if it weren’t hidden in the 80% most of us don’t use. The arguments I hear most are around security, stability and integration.

Security? Anyone could access an Excel spreadsheet and know the most crucial elements of our business – our money.

Stability? Excel is unreliable. It crashes all the time.

Integration? Excel is a tool. It’s not a service and won’t work with our other systems.

The answer has to be something that is secure, stable and integrates well with our other systems. Therefore we must build a solution that we control who has access to it, will never fail and can be integrated in with our other system.

Let’s dispel the myths of Excel and then revisit this demand.

Security can be set to a single cell in an Excel spreadsheet, not only to a single worksheet, and to the entire workbook. I challenge anyone to crack an Excel spreadsheet once you have forgotten the password to unlock it.

The only time Excel becomes unreliable is when it is installed on a poor workstation or is asked to do calculations that have not been set-up properly.

The manner in which the data is saved in Excel is the most commonly used format for transferring mathematical data in systems, comma delimited or .CVS and can even be extracted automatically and in a mired of formats including the more pervasive .XML requirement of most modern day systems.

In contrast the security, stability and ability to integrate bespoke or specialist off-the-shelf application is more prone to failure because businesses are loathed to spend money on something that cannot be guaranteed, technologists are loathed to check every connection point during integration and users are loathed of new challenges. And all of this from an application that has been built on the same principles of loathing by the developing team.

Before it sounds like I am evangelizing the use of Excel, I digress. It is by the mere fact that Excel has penetrated the office environment through it’s attachment to Windows, the operating system for corporate Britain (etc, etc…) and being bundled with Outlook, a package even less understood by its users and yet even more imperative for the access of email, that it is significant enough to express my point. Excel is still a white elephant; an enormous calculator and we would all be lost without it.

If we were able to take our work tools back down to their simplest incarnations we would have a single piece of software; a very bare looking user interface. What do we need? Words and numbers, possibly the odd smattering of images to best represent those words and images. We would needs something that can send those words and numbers to other people who need them to do their job. We would need something to help us work out those complicated sums. From here on in we are adding complexity for its own sake.

It’s easy to see from this simplistic view that Excel fits the bill and yet there’s a lot more it can do, and we don’t use.

To return this to the original question: Are we really reaping the benefits from what we have? The answer remains no. The underlying question of whether or not we could be further along with our technology, the answer is most certainly ‘yes’.

Whilst we are faced with business led, technology driven solutions that invoke challenge on it’s users, all of whom are apathetic to change we will never have the shift that is needed to spur our use of what can be done.

As I typ Microsoft Word intelligently underlines my purposeful misspelling of the word ‘type’ in a red wiggly line. An artificial intelligence that does not recognize the letters I have used, I am prompted to take action and make the change. Right mouse clicking on the word brings up possible options for what Microsoft thinks I might be trying to spell. Extremely useful when, like me, you are hopeless at spelling and yet still not a true reflection of the power Microsoft could build. As you read the first line, you knew exactly what I meant and yet Word did not. It felt it necessary to check with me. Albeit it’s top suggestion was the word ‘type’.

For you and me we sit here apathetically feeling that this red squiggly line is pure wonderment. How did we, the literally challenged, ever survive from the constant embarrassment of our misspellings before the advent of the red squiggly line? And yet although our embarrassment is saved to the privacy of us and our word processor, the embarrassment still remains.

To extend this to a mathematical equation where I wish to work out what the average value of a string of numbers are I would first have to leave Word and open Excel (unless I knew the greater secrets that lay in the depths of Word which would allow me to perform this calculation without leaving my text). I would then have to know where to place each number, then how to create a formula that begins with an equal’s symbol and the word ‘average’, open parenthesis, the cell range, close parenthesis and enter. For me, someone who has spent a lot of time learning the nuances of Excel, quite easy, for most, and absolute mystery. Why can I not simply request the average of the numbers I type here: 10, 20, 11, 22, 12, 22, 10 and have the answer appear instantly as 15?

The technology we have today is advanced enough to learn from what we do and to anticipate what results we require, but the implementation of this fails because of the need to adopt change. We started with a disparate suite of overly complex solutions and we will continue to use them in such a way. To change would require ripping down 20-stories. And even the tenants are not convinced with that idea.

The option is not to rip down 20-stories, but to build another skyscraper, learning from the mistakes of the last one. The ones that do this with an immense amount of ingenuity start completely afresh from the foundations. These are normally guised as vigilantes and their products branded with ‘Web 2.0’ applications (a categorization given to development houses that use the simplest of user-friendly technologies). These vigilantes are inevitably a group of disgruntled employees of previous skyscraper projects and entrepreneurs who are easily enthused with the prospect of making money. Alas, because of this small start-up vigilante anti-establishment movement, corporate Etc, stick with what they know best, even if it hasn’t proven to be completely successful in the past. They have tenants now therefore they must have done something right. And to build a new skyscraper means carrying across what they feel that ‘something right’ was. Those that disagree become the vigilantes - a self-perpetuating and self-fulfilled prophecy.

The technology we have today is phenomenal. It can do vast amounts. It goes unused because of the failings highlighted above. Users can’t find it; don’t know how to use it; don’t know that it even exists. Our way to remedy this is to build more. After all the cost of building a new feature, a new function, a fix, or even a whole new application is relatively cheap compared to ripping down everything that you have achieved so far to start again.

In answer to my own question, we have yet to tap in to the true power of our existing technology and we are further compounding this reality by adding even more to it. In order for any technology to be truly unleashed and for all to adopt its full power (let alone potential) we have to all be accepting of ‘our’ mistakes and consider that the only way forward is through embracing ‘change’ whatever the cost.

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