No story last weekend — I apologize! One will be up this weekend, and I’ll be sticking with the Witches of Ming Ung until it’s done. I think it’s confusing to keep switching back and forth, especially since Witches is a serial plot (whereas Transhuman Congress jumps around).
I’ve been in the world of software development for a hot minute now, starting in the high school classroom, through an internship at a startup, to doing fast-paced client work, and now to big corp. One thing I’ve consistently found time and time again, is a correlation between computer UI usage skills and problem-solving efficiency. This is all anecdotal, of course.
I baffle people with number of Firefox tabs and windows I run. I put up with a fair amount of computer slowness to have the ability to put things on the back-burner very easily without losing them completely. I do that through tabs and windows when my work is in Firefox, and through lots of open text files in Notepad++ when coding.
There comes a point — usually mid-afternoon — where I have to stop and clean up or I start to lose track. Where I can’t just glance at the little title snippets and know what tab to use. (I never ever use Windows’s “collapse my taskbar items” feature — that’s a killer for me.)
Objectively, I know this is a subpar setup. Not only am I hindered by slower page load times, slower JS execution times, and more browser crashes, my home computer (which isn’t a beast to begin with) churns and chokes in task switching. I’m not one prone to tech rage with my computer; even sitting at 4GB of memory of RAM with an admittedly old processor, I can rarely watch full-screen video without stuttering, or play Left 4 Dead (2) without accuracy-killing shoddy performance. I’ve given up my latest-greatest rush, and with that comes the requirement to be patient.
So my setup isn’t optimal. I can usually keep track of what’s going on, though, because I keep a careful watch on alt+tab orderings. For example, If I need to switch between a Word document, two Firefox tabs, and Notepad++, then the second FF tab gets bumped to a new window and I make sure the top four items in my alt+tab rotation are those four items. Odd, but that works pretty well.
But a lot of those people who think I’m weird most definitely trump me in their inefficient setups. I’ve worked with someone — let’s call her Sarah — who started the following apps simultaneously on loading Windows XP (on an encrypted hard disk):
- Lotus Notes 6
- Firefox with saved tabs requiring several HTTP logins
- IE 7
This is on top of the standard big corp load of Office Communicator, encryption manager, Symantec anti-virus, etc. Sarah also opened multiple Firefox windows and tabs… eventually, when all that other stuff finished loading. It could be literally 10 minutes from Windows login until she had the ability to check and read her email. I was up and running in no more than 3 minutes in the same big corp load.
Trouble is, this affects our ability to problem-solve quickly. I work slower than Nathan, who runs a much cleaner setup, and Sarah works slower than I do. (Dreamweaver. Honestly.) Not just slower at the physical completion of work (although that, too), but slower at understanding the problem and designing the solution. Years of experience don’t seem to be much of a factor, either. Sarah has years more experience than I do, and Nathan and I are neck and neck.
What does seem to be a factor, though is… hmm, shall I call it “computer literacy”? The deftness with which one uses a computer. For instance, if you don’t know that you can search for and install a Firefox plugin through Firefox itself (Tools -> Add-ons -> Get Add-ons), then you end up opening a new tab, going to Mozilla’s add-on site, searching for the add-on, sifting through search results (with the busyness of a larger screen), etc.
I promise, I’m not arguing for finding the absolute-most-efficient way to do things. I’m just curious about the differences here.
Anyway, this lack of deftness goes along with many of the behaviors that hinder non-technical users:
- They don’t read things as well and tend to just click away alert boxes.
- They can’t pick out content on a page as will by skimming. This (most notably) slows down finding solutions via Google/Bing searches.
- They can’t manage more than about 2-3 windows without finding themselves cycling again and again through the alt+tab list until they stop and read the titles.
- They don’t use keyboard shortcuts well or effectively.
- They do “too much” for actions that can be done more simply. As an example, imagine that you sometimes search a subset of the content in a text document in Dreamweaver or Notepad++. You can do this by selecting the block of content, then doing a search; the editor will automatically limit your search to that content. But if you need to search everything in a document, it’s silly to select everything in the file with your mouse, then search, but I’ve seen that habit get established.
All of means that we miss clues because we don’t see them or we’re distracted by the conscious acts of stumbling with shortcut keys.
It seems like a good usability lab setup could capture all sorts of information about how developers work and where problem areas are.
My big question, though, is what can I do about it on a one-on-one basis? When I’m sitting with Sarah, helping her diagnose and fix an issue, and I’m struggling not to tell her how to do things or rush her… How do I gently train her to work a little smoother, especially when she is as unbothered by her setup as I am by mine? For that matter, should I?