The Real Inefficiency?

In my last post I outlined how concepts of product usability might be applied to the work place as Business Usability. I want to expand the idea of the conceptual model and how the modern knowledge worker is often at a disadvantage compared to their historic colleagues.

In everything we do there is a conceptual model and a mental model. The conceptual model describes how something actually works and the mental model is how we ‘think’ something works. The success in anything working properly for us is when those two models converge. When our mental model matches the conceptual model things are obvious and easy to do.

In many workplaces the conceptual model of how things work is embedded in the environment. Think of a train station, there is a ticket desk, a platform and a train. You go in, you buy your ticket at the desk, you go to the platform and then board the train. There are sometimes signposts to help you in larger stations. Here we know what the steps are because the environment, and our cultural knowledge, dictate this. Some stations/airports work better than others.

Think how relevant this is in manufacturing environments, production lines, where every machine and person has a place, the trigger is the incoming widget the output is the outgoing widget+. It’s easy to train people, and for them to sustain their understanding of what to do because their environment provides so many visual indicators. They don’t have to remember everything only enough to mentally piece together what they actually need to do. As humans we use this type of construct to save us having to store information in our long-term memory. For the vast majority of us long-term memory is incredibly inefficient, you know what it’s like when you try to remember the name of ‘that’ song or the author of ‘that’ book. What we are very good at is piecing together, or constructing, memory based on recognizable identifiers.

Now consider the typical office worker, or knowledge worker, where the environment provides no clues as to what happens next. A computer, desk and a telephone. Without these traditional indicators we have become inefficient as we have to work harder to piece together the steps required to meet our goals. We must rely heavily on long-term memory and spend a good deal of time looking for information, discussing with colleagues and guessing at the steps we need in order to get there. This is, perhaps, one reason why process improvement methodologies have not been as successful in the information domain as they have in traditional industries.

As we spend so much of our time staring at the computer screen it seems sensible that these identifiers should be embedded there. There are many software apps available that do a good job of providing the right amount of information at the right time to help you understand what you are supposed to do when you are using them. But outstanding user interfaces are still in the minority and they are generally limited to the activities for which they are used. They do not provide clues that lead you to them in the first place, nor what you do after you have finished using them.

What is required is a common platform that provides just enough information at the right time to the help user achieve their goals. Detailed procedures or complex flow diagrams are not ideal; they require examination and concentration that takes time away from real work. These new ‘conceptual models’ need to be instantly accessible and, where appropriate, interact with the underlying tools and applications that are required in order to complete the process.

Perhaps the biggest inefficiency in modern business is the time workers spend trying to piece together what they are supposed to do.


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