One of the results of taking a new job is you get to stumble through the corporate applications that longterm employees know backwards and forwards. It's a bit embarassing, but it's also instructive: you get to participate in a realtime human factors study (universe of one) and find out where the system gets confusing, before you've learned its idiosyncracies.
I'll give two examples. Last week, we had what's called an "Analysis review" of my forthcoming report. (The Analysis portion of a Burton Group report is where you editorialize about the market, trends, what to look for, etc. It precedes the Details section, which contains the supporting facts). An Analysis review is where your colleagues go over the main points of the Analysis section with you on an hour and a half conference call, to make sure you don't have holes in your argument.
"Hmm, have you thought of this?" "I think you should talk about it this way." "One way to make that point would be to talk about this..." You get the idea.
It was my review, so it was my responsibility to send out the conference call number and PIN code. I found the e-mail announcing my InterCall number and instantly got confused. It starts off with my Owner Number and Web PIN number [used to logon to the InterCall Web site] and then launches into sales mode: Operator Assisted or Direct Event, with all sorts of steps after each. I'm thinking, "Just give me a dial-in number and PIN code." Eventually I decided, "Screw it," went to the InterCall Web site, logged on -- which then told me I had to talk to a person anyway -- and arranged for the conference call half an hour before it started.
At the appointed time, I dialed in, talked to an Operator, and got admitted to the call. My three colleagues then joined, and two of them said, "Hey, what's the deal with the human?" They were used to just punching in their PIN number, and having a human Operator answer the phone was definitely an oddity. I explained I'd pre-booked the call, and they said, "Oh, don't do that -- just use the dial-in number and PIN they sent you." I, of course, am thinking, "I would have if I could have found it."
After the call, I went back, looked at the e-mail, and eventually figured out that it's hidden in the Direct Event instructions. Of course, rather than just state up front in a task-oriented way, "Here are the two numbers you need," InterCall writes the instructions from its marketing point-of-view, which is, "Here are all our wonderful features: you can do this, or you can do that..." Oh, and by the way, I got the confirming e-mail about the conference call 11 hours after the call.
My second example is using Lotus Notes. The first time I went to insert a Word file in an entry, I couldn't find Insert, File, like it is in Microsoft Word. After about 10 minutes of telling myself, "I know this is possible, I did it ten years ago when I used Notes before," I called up a colleague for help. Since he was a former Product Manager of Notes, he knew exactly what to do. It turns out it's under File, Attach..., which I literally couldn't see because I kept scanning for Insert.
I mention all of this because it's interesting to see how much of how we perceive the world is driven by our preconceptions. In both cases I could physically do what I wanted to do -- I just couldn't figure out how to do it, due to my perceptual baggage. I'll eventually find my way around the Burton Group systems, and at some point become bemused when new employees get lost.
Nevertheless, these two stories warn of problems ahead. As all businesses get closer and closer to software parity -- e.g., they can all send e-mail and cut a payroll at the same rapid speed -- employees stumbling around the user interface will increasingly make companies less productive.
Put another way, when using a word processor was 10 times faster than using a typewriter, the company still came out ahead if it took a user several minutes to figure out how to set tabs, for example. Now, the two minutes of "Huh, what do I do?" falls directly to the bottom line of lost productivity.
Most employees don't rant in a blog about their inability to decipher a user interface. Nevertheless, there's muttering going on somewhere, I guarantee it. Just make sure there isn't too much of it -- otherwise, your company's productivity is taking a dive.