Ease of Use—Not a Good Thing?

John Heckman in his recent blog post, When Is Ease of Use Counterproductive? raised an interesting issue and one I have struggled with in designing advanced interview systems for document automation.  He posits that making something too easy encourages foolish and stupid behavior.  There is a balance between “constraints on behavior” and making something too simple.

John was likely thinking of practice management systems that strive to use wizards to paper over the complexity of their systems.  As a person who routinely turns off the wizard, I can see his point.  If you don’t ever confront the data entry form, you will not know enough about the structure of the system to be able to properly work with the data you have entered.  I can appreciate a well designed wizard, but too often the wizard makers make assumptions that simply don’t apply to you.  And unless the user is exposed to the non-wizard approach, they will often be unable to get the result they desire from the software.  Extensive wizards can in fact cripple good software.  It is not that they break the software.  Rather, it is that they obscure the functionality of the software.

In building document assembly interviews, I am constrained to balance simplicity of design with the complexity of reality.  Make an estate planning system TOO SIMPLE, and the templates it produces will only be functional 80% of the time, requiring constant vigilance and tweaks of the final Word document.  Make it too complex and the user will not know how to answer particular questions that appear unfamiliar out of the context of the documents they used to edit manually. The solution that I have come up with is a balancing act.  Rather than push the complexity under the rug with a wizard, I script the dialogs with an “advanced” option that allows you to expose more complex questions in a particular area.  Questions are carefully grouped under headers.  There is help text both associated with the variables and on the dialog.  With document assembly tools I can also add constraints that prevent bad data from being enter, such as an “division of assets” that might exceed 100%.

There are many purported “simple systems”.  The iPOD app store is an example of “simple systems”.  DISCLAIMER: I have 2 iPOD Touch devises and a Blackberry Storm.  In their advertisements, Apple toots:  “There’s an APP for that”.  And yet, the sum of the parts is often less than the whole. And that is because each APP is an Island, requiring you often to dual enter data and maintain the same data in multiple places.  I find the approach by Salesforce.com and Mozilla Firefox to be quite different.  The “APPS” in these cases are plugins that extend the core functionality of the system and allow you to do more with forcing you to separate your data in different Island.  Yes, there are thousands of apps for Salesforce.com; but each APP assumes a core set of shared data (Contacts, Accounts, Opportunities) and so these apps together are MORE than the sum of their parts.

And so, when you think of “Ease of Use” bear it in mind with a grain of salt.

Living with the Dragon; Talking back to your computer Day 3

Honesty by Computer.  There is one aspect of Dragon NaturallySpeaking that might end up being quite beloved by executive management types.  Having to speak out loud into a computer tends to cut down on non-work Internet surfing!  There are few employees who would have the guts to say out loud “Seach web for beach houses available in June 2010”.

This might be just one of the vaunted productivity gains touted by Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

Non-standard windows, such as Time Matters, seem to work best with a combination of spoken commands and mouse positioning.  I noticed that Dragon NaturallySpeaking tends to favor commands that are actual word commands.  By this, I don’t mean Microsoft word commands per se, but commands such as “File, save and close”.  It does less well with picture icons or long, nonstandard, picklists.  This may be a matter of training-my training Dragon, I mean.  I was quite excited, however, when I successfully created a step-by-step command that allowed me to create a bill slip from an event record in Time Mattters.  Still, it required that I highlight the actual event to to create the bill slip.

I’ve found so far that the Step-by-Step keystroke commands work the best in Time Matters.  I’ve managed to create some useful new record commands and saving commands. The “Give Me Help” command is a G_dsend – the index is very easy to work with.

Note From Seth: Dragon is like the Tour de France.  There are some days where you race ahead of the pack and feel as if you are on top of the world.  There are other days where it is a long slog as you climb mountain after mountain to get to a goal that seems just out of reach. As with the Tour de France, practice makes better so don’t let the minor hills keep you from your course.

Life with the Dragon: Day Two – Talking Back To Your Computer

Working with Dragon NaturallySpeaking reminds me very much of one of those old movies in which you see an executive dictating to a secretary. I am now gaining a good deal respect for both executive and secretary.

The dictating executive had to be clear and concise and the secretary had to be able to understand him (face it, it usually was a him), even when he was not.  Without a doubt, the program that Dragon NaturallySpeaking seems to work with most easily is Microsoft Word.  This makes perfect sense as it is a dictation program.  You do, however, come to realize, that you must slow down your speech and speak to the program as clearly as you would to a recalcitrant 4 year old.  Like the 4-year-old, Dragon learns a little more every time you speak to it as long as you speak to it in an measured and even tone.

Sometimes, Dragon NaturallySpeaking will mistake words for commands.  For instance, when I used the word “tone”, Dragon read this as “Home” and proceeded to fly up to the “Home” key, ready to click.  There are a few ways that I have noted that will allow you to avoid this issue.  When you dictate a word that is read incorrectly more than once, you can use the “spell that” function to “train” your computer to understand the way you intone a particular word.  If you mean to use a command, you can hold down the control (CTRL) key and Dragon NaturallySpeaking will understand that you do not intend to dictate that as a word.  I have noticed that speaking in phrases of 3 words together with a pause after each tends to minimize the errors.  The best way, although probably not the easiest or fastest way, is to create user commands that will give you different ways of asking for common commands such as end of line or inserting a commonly used address.

Note from Seth: Do not have too many windows open at a time when you are using Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Otherwise, you will find extraneous codes and remarks in places you never intended them to appear.  You should silence the “Dragon” when you finish your dictation.

Life with the Dragon: Day one-talking to your computer

Can Dragon Naturally Speaking enable you to throw away your keyboard and control your computer with just your voice?  Basha consultant, Rose Rowland, a newly certified Dragon Naturally Speaking reseller, tries a week without her keyboard to see how far the limits of spoken technology can go.

I have been typing for a VERY long time.  Just to give you a sense of how long, when I first took typing in high school, we all worked on manual typewriters and only the very best were allowed a shot at the fancy new electric IBM Selectrics.  Now you can go play a guessing game about my age (no, not THAT old!).

Therefore, entering the world of computers and keyboards was no great challenge to me.  I have never, however, up until this point had the wizard-like option of talking to my computer and having it do what I tell it to do.  So, Harry Potter fan that I am, I was eager to try Dragon NaturallySpeaking.

Having passed my exam, I decided to spend a week with the Dragon.

On Monday, I started. First impressions.  Much like wizarding skills, working with Dragon is exceptionally cool but mastering it does require a degree of patience.  Not because the program is difficult to learn-far from it.  It is one of the most easy to master out-of-the-box products I have seen recently, The difficulty stems more from the wizard than the wand.  However, if you can stick with it, I am assured that it can speed up your work considerably.  I can already tell that my searches, whether on the Web or in my computer are considerably faster using Dragon Soft.  Check back tomorrow for my further adventures talking back to my computer.

NOTE from SETH:  While working with “text” is easy, navigating the commands of a new program can be challenging.  Your friend is the “mouse grid” command.  Before you go on long adventures, be sure to keep a hand “command” guide at your ready or say “What can I say?”