May 14, 2001

Take advantage of technology

Summary: use technology to simplify existing processes, and take advantage of what users already understand.

Recently, I had to select courses for my enrollment at the University of Waterloo. Strangely enough, that progressive and technologically-advanced university has a very archaic registration system. Undergraduate students must look up course codes and descriptions in one section of a book, and then use a second section of the same book to find when and where the course is offered. Alternatively, or actually necessarily (because the course book is rather incomplete), students have access to a website full of course descriptions, and a second, unclear website to find out scheduled times and locations of the classes. After all of this "legwork" students still have to fill out a schedule by hand, and fill out a selection form by hand, to ensure that there are no conflicts.

Naturally, the university should offer a simpler system, perhaps taking advantage of their technical prowess. However, if it insists on using a complicated by-hand system, it should at least make sure that the information it provides is clear. All of the times reported in the course book and on the website are in 12-hour format, but lack AM or PM indicators. I fail to understand the difficulty of inserting AM and PM, which would immediately eliminate some confusion. It may be easier to use numbers only, but the computer that generates the schedule can be programmed to output AM and PM!

Doing course selection in this archaic way generates a large paper trail, and takes many hours; that's paper and time that would be saved if the university would invest in clear, simple technology that addresses user goals more efficiently than the current system.

Missed opportunities

Long before Palm was the market leader in pocket pen-based computers, Apple had coined the term "Personal Digital Assistant" (PDA), and even built an entire computer based on that concept: Newton. The Newton OS had brilliantly accurate handwriting recognition before Palm had established its Graffiti standard, and by 1997, Newton's handwriting recognition was accurate enough to be used by anyone who was literate. People spend years and years in school learning how to write, yet Palm and other companies would have us learn another language. Why not use handwriting recognition technology? It exists, and it's accurate!

That same missed opportunity applies to mobile phones. Decent voice recognition technology also exists, and could have been implemented on mobile phones years ago. Why are users still forced to enter text using a telephone keypad, or (possibly worse), a thumb-operated keyboard? We have both handwriting recognition and voice recognition, both of which are easier to learn and use than current methods of input on mobile phones.

Why invest in technology?

The best way to help users reach their goals is to give them something that speeds up the process. The easier that thing is to learn and use, the more efficiently users will be able to reach their goals.

In many cases, the old way of doing things isn't efficient; in fact, they can be downright useless, and very frustrating (such as the archaic university course selection process). Technology can make doing certain things a more pleasurable experience that takes less time.

Some suggestions for taking advantage of technology

Many of these suggestions may seem to be common sense, which begs the question: why aren't they commonly used?

Because of the increasingly complex technology that ordinary people are being exposed to on a daily basis, particular attention must be paid to whether or not the technology is being used in an advantageous way. Often, technology is simply built for no reason; seldom does technology find its way into the places it needs to be. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, make it spin faster and take the bumps more smoothly.

Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.