I don’t use too many tabs!

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
  • Dreamweaver
  • 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?

  • My solution to the “slow startup problem” is to never turn my work computer off. Every day, I pick up with my stuff mostly where I left it before. It may be wasteful of electricity, but I figure my time is far more valuable. This lets me trade the everyday timewaste of startup for the periodic slowdowns caused by RAMrot and solved with a reboot.

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  • In terms of speed, when I first switched to OS X I really had a hard time keeping up with where I knew I should be. I had to relearn all of my keyboard shortcuts, I had to retrain all of my muscle memory. I’ve got that sorted out now, but it really did hurt productivity for a while.

    Really, I posit that I’m only quick on trained use patterns. Just like I don’t look at my guitar neck to fret a chord anymore, the computer is a tool. While doing web development tasks I have such a standard set of actions that I don’t ever have to think about what I’m doing. I (ab)use OS X’s keyboard shortcut tool and will have all of the tabs, browsers, VMs, and programs open almost immediately, switch to a workspace and use that to cull distractions.

    Then again, when doing sound recording I feel as slow as molasses because I don’t know the process I want to follow.

    I do lose some intentionality in my actions though (habit versus active thought), making me more prone to mistakes. 🙂

    Related, check out Aza Raskin’s TabCandy, coming soon to a Firefox build near you. :): http://www.azarask.in/blog/post/tabcandy/

    • Nathan: did you deliberately and consciously work to relearn your keyboard shortcuts, or did you just figure them out as needed?

      I think you’re right on the “trained use patterns” idea. So are people who are slower that way because they just never learned, and so don’t have the muscle memory?

      TabCandy looks hawt. I’ve started pushing new layers of research into new windows to do similar grouping, but TabCandy looks more versatile.

  • Michael

    I think TabCandy looks pretty good also.

    I am using Treestyle Tabs and it’s awesome. https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/5890/ i will look forward to using tabcandy in conjunction.

    I actually started training my coworkers. It wasn’t the easiest, especially when trying to train someone who’d been around longer. egos and whatnot. also, while i am still probably too arrogant about it, i was even moreso then truly believing that there was a best way to get some of these things done. now i still believe that there are worst ways, or at least terrible ways, but i do not believe in the best way so much anymore. one thing i did was to start to try to document my behaviors that i saw were drastically different than my coworkers’. for example, they all used ffox, but very few extensions. so i started sharing this with them: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/collection/tgm

    also, every one of them had a widescreen setup, and at the time i was convinced that it was extremely slow and wasteful to use a horizontal taskbar with the grouping bs. i challenged them to try it for 10 work days or something, and if they didn’t prefer task bar on the left, i’d buy them lunch (and punch them in the nuts [sausage fest up in there])

    i think that worked well, i start with like, “did you know ctrl+x is cut?” and then go to “yeah actually it really helps out a lot,” and then, “oh really? let’s race! i bet you your monitor i’ll beat you unless you use ctrl+x”

    same for ctrl+arrow keys and just tons of it. on the one hand, i hate that we have to learn so many different shortcuts on so many different apps, but on the other hand it feels really good to be able to get/stay in the zone easier bc of not being distracted by the interface.

    i think i have been disappointed on osx with how incosistent the apps are in reusing the shortcut commands. the app devs seem to be 1 part apple devs since birth, 1 part linux devs, and 1 part windows devs, and whoever has the biggest shoes on a particular project, sees that the shortcuts from their camp are used.

    being able to map shortcuts to individual apps and system level shortcuts and whatnot is a great way to fix this, but it’d also be great if some class of the shortcuts died and we just dealt with one camp…i think?

    i am only starting to feel half as productive as i was on windows, and i’m trying. but i think that the multitude of tasks i’m now performing (unlike in industry) and software i’m using is forcing me to continue to encounter different apps and i have a moving target in trying to become deft. so i think i agree with nathan’s point about trained patterns.

    i’m just gonna stop here. thanks for the opp to htink about this. i think you shoudl at least try to help them and if they’re unreceptive, then f it. if you’re in charge of them, give them deadlines more similar to what you could meet, and if they cannot make it, make a less optional training seminar. if you’re slowing yourself down with your inefficient practices, fine. take it easy. but if you’re holding up a team, flush your ego and take a hand