More Features = Lower Utility: Watching the TV

Not all change, is change for the better. We may get more features, but do we get more utility.

Then:

Once upon a time an evening at home was a simple activity.

Having completed the necessary activities it would become time to watch the TV. There was a simple choice available from a few over-the-air channels, the choice was tiny, but I don’t remember ever being lost for something to watch.

Deciding on which of the four-way choices to watch meant opening one of a number of magazines to see the now and next options. The lack of choice made this easy.

The transition to the main event – watching a programme – took a few seconds.

There was only one screen to watch and we all watched the same thing.

Now:

(Last night to be precise)

Having completed the evening’s activities we sat down and decided to turn on the TV. In our current configuration we also need to turn on a companion box from the local cable company. The list of available programmes is staggering and we scroll through the list for a few minutes before settling on a particular channel.

Once that programme had finished we again scrolled through the list of available channels. Not seeing anything we particularly wanted to watch we scrolled through the list of available programmes that the companion box had decided to record for us. I used to know why this box recorded what it recorded, but it’s evolved to have a level of free will while it’s been with us and now chooses which programmes to record for itself. I considered moving over to one of the streaming services, in order to gain further choice, but these run so slowly on this box that the wait is excruciating for a brain that has been conditioned to expect immediate gratification.

Returning to the list of available programmes we settled on something that would get us through to bed time.

We were tired though, and decided to move our watching to the screen in the bedroom after a few minutes. The channel we were watching was one that was also available over-the-air from that screen. Unfortunately there was a problem with the over-the-air signal and all we got were a set of occasionally moving blocks and an intermittent soundbite. This is a recent problem which I had forgotten about, other channels are fine, but this one is unusable in its current state. A false start, but I wasn’t going to be defeated.

That’s OK, I thought, we can do this a different way, this screen has one of the popular streaming devices available to it and there’s an app for the channel that we were watching.

Switching over to the streaming device isn’t as easy as it may sound because I need to get out of bed to plug it into the back of the screen. We remove it occasionally because it interferes with the over-the-air signal. The streaming box always needs restarting in this situation, which takes a few minutes.

Thankfully the streaming box didn’t do the optimisation thing that it decides to do at the least convenient times. It clearly took pity on me because it knew what was about to come.

Once the streaming box had started I navigated to the appropriate app for the programme we wanted to watch. Like many of these apps this one has recently started asking me to authenticate myself. Authentication was to be done via a URL and a supplied PIN code. One of my evening rules is to leave my smartphone downstairs, so out of bed I get and retrieve the required touchscreen interface. Before I could enter the PIN I needed to authenticate to the web site via the URL. Having tried to log in with the email address that I use for such things I eventually conclude that I haven’t previously registered for this particular app – so I registered. Registering also meant validating my email address via an email notice. Having jumped all of the hurdles I entering the PIN and gained access to the app. The end was starting to felt like it was within reach.

Once I was within the app I used the search interface to find the particular programme. I don’t know how these apps decide what goes on the front page, but it never reflects the programmes I watch. Search on these apps is never that good, particularly as you need to enter the characters via a remote control interface a letter at a time – left-left-left-up-click-right-right-down-down-click-right-right-right-right-right-right-up-up-up-up-click.

Eventually the programme I was looking for showed up in the search recently, all I needed to do now was to decide which episode we had been watching. Thankfully, I picked the right one straightaway, but how far through were we? Time to fast forward, which highlighted another challenge, this particular app didn’t show a preview of where you were, so I just had to keep guessing. Another few minutes lost.

More than twenty minutes later we were back to were we had been before me made the journey up the stairs.

This isn’t the only app like this though, there are at least six different ones on my streaming box and each of them requires a different authentication. One of them loves to forget my credentials and it’s almost become routine to enter my details every time I use it.

I haven’t worked it out but between 15% and 20% of my viewing time last night was taken up with navigating the technology. Yes, I have access to unbelievable amounts of content but why does it have to be so difficult to watch a programme? Was the programme I fought to watch worth the 15% to 20% tax – no.

Running in Dark Mode all Day

It’s likely that most of the apps that you use have a white (or light) background with black (or dark) text. It’s also likely that the operating system capabilities that you use also has this configuration.

This is the default after all and why would you change it?

You may have gone to the effort of changing the colour scheme a little, but it’s probably still got a light background and dark text.

I’ve recently taken the step of reversing this on many apps and some operating systems as a bit of an experiment. My screen world is now predominantly dark – dark background with light text.

Why? There are a few reasons, but mostly it’s about personal taste and visual preferences:

  • Eye Fatigue – When you are looking into a screen you are looking into a light. It may only be a low intensity light, but it’s still a light. Using dark mode reduces the amount of light and hence, hopefully, the levels of eye fatigue. Some people claim a scientific justification for this, but the research I could find was quite limited. I find it easier on the eye and that’s good enough for me.
  • Reduced Blue Light – Of the light that your screen is emitting the blue light is probably the most destructive. It’s thought that this type of light impacts our ability to sleep, and that we should reduce the amount of blue light before we go to bed. My logic goes like this, if I don’t need it in the evening, why would I need more of it than my surroundings are providing it in the daytime?
  • Readability – This is a subjective one, I find light text on a dark background easier to read.
  • Reduced Distraction – Using dark mode reduces the intensity of many of the interface elements. Things like window borders and app icons are not as highlighted and hence grab less attention. At the same time, the elements that I am working on – the words and diagrams – stand out more and draw my attention.
  • Reduced Power Consumption – This is a tenuous one, dark mode uses slightly less power to light the screen and hence it improves battery life on a device. I suspect that the difference here is marginal, but what it has allowed me to do is to lower the light levels on my iPhone extending the battery life by a little.

There are some drawbacks though:

  • It’s not the Default – Because Dark Mode isn’t the default for operating systems or for applications, you have to choose it. My experience has been that some applications will take the preference from the operating system, but not all of them will. Some apps provide an option which you then have to find.
  • Web Sites – The real challenge is web sites, it takes far too much effort to switch over to dark mode in each of these. I’ve tried a few plug-ins for browsers, but have concluded that the glitches are worse than just letting the web sites display in light mode.
  • Mixed Mode – Because it’s not the default it’s not always possible to work in dark mode in every application, and certainly not on every web site. The challenge with this is that you then get the rather jarring experience of switching between an app that is in dark mode and another that it in light mode. On balance, though, I think I prefer this experience to the default one. I’d call myself a lightweight dark mode user.
  • iOS Dark Mode – My primary smartphone is an iPhone. The iOS interface doesn’t really have a dark mode. You can use the accessibility features to invert the colours which is supposed to be smart enough to only invert the colours of the text, but it also has an annoying habit of inverting the colours of all of the images. Having said that, once you switch apps to dark mode it’s surprising to realise how little of the actual iOS interface you see day to day. Yesterday, Apple announced that iOS 13 will have a dark mode.

All I need, now, is for each of the apps that I use to give me the option to change, or better still, to take the default settings from the operating system. I suspect that web sites are always going to be, by default, in light mode, but perhaps a time is coming when they will pick up the correct mode from the browser that is being used.

As part of this experiment I’ve switched this web site over to a dark colour scheme and even there I’ve had some glitches to deal with, some of which still aren’t resolved.

Many people see dark mode as a way of making the nighttime visual experience better, but I’ve been using dark mode all day every day. I started this as an experiment a few weeks ago, I wasn’t expecting it to make much difference, but it has made a far greater difference than I was expecting.

I’m not advocating that everyone moves because I think that it’s primarily an issue of personal preference, but you might like to give it a try.

Header Image: This is Traigh a Bhaigh, Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides. Apparently this is how you park a boat around here.

My Tools: Microsoft To-Do

My productivity regime is an example of continuous learning. It doesn’t stay the same for very long and is regularly changed a bit here and there. Within my productivity practices task management has been an area in need of improvement for some time as the working context has changed.

There was a time when I could use my inbox as my list of outstanding activities, but that’s no longer the case as activities get assigned to me in various different ways and from different tools.

I have tried for a little while managing my tasks in each of the various tools, but that become cumbersome. I also tried various methods of copying activity descriptions to a central tool and then working there, the problem with this was that I still needed to keep the various sources synchronised as the status and priority changes.

The latest incarnation of my tasks management activities utilises Microsoft To-Do. I looked at To-Do when it was first launched because I’ve previously used Wunderlist, which Microsoft purchased. In those early days I couldn’t see what I was getting and it was all a bit rudimentary, I expected this to changed, but it didn’t change for what seemed like a very long time.

Recently though, To-Do has hit the accelerator on useful capabilities and my use of it has increased significantly.

The two main features that have made the difference being:

  • Flagged email – Emails that I flag in Outlook get automatically replicated into a folder in To-Do where I can work on them and flag them as completed. This is a two-way synchronisation – if it’s flagged complete in To-Do it’s flagged complete in Outlook and vice versa.
  • Assigned to Me – if a task is assigned to me in Planner it also appears in To-Do. Again this is a two-way synchronisation.

The activities that I place directly into To-Do are also synchronised into Outlook Tasks, but I don’t think that this has had a significant impact on my productivity because I’ve never managed my Tasks in Outlook Tasks and don’t think I’m going to start.

Assigned and Flagged in Microsoft To-Do

I have always flagged emails in Outlook as a way of sorting through the dross to find the things requiring my attention. The task of Flagging an email is done via an Outlook Quick Step which also moves the email into a separate folder and marks it as read. I have another Quick Step that moves emails that require no action to a different folder and marks them as read. These are both assigned a keyboard shortcut so that I can progress through my inbox without leaving the keyboard.

Now that tasks from emails, tasks from Planner and my own defined tasks are in To-Do I’ve found myself using To-Do as the mechanism for planning my day, adding and removing things from the My Day plan. My daily plan still takes place on a piece of paper, but that’s because my daily plan isn’t just about tasks. The tasks are increasingly managed in To-Do.

This still isn’t an absolutely ideal situation because I also get assigned activities via a Jira corporate project management capability, but it’s a lot better than it used to be. Perhaps I should raise a suggestion for the To-Do team to work with Atlassion on that.

Looking forward to what new capabilities the To-Do team have for us.

“In our language there is a word with enormous power…” Marshall B. Rosenberg

“In our language there is a word with enormous power to create shame and guilt. This violent word, which we commonly use to evaluate ourselves, is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that many of us would have trouble imagining how to live without it. It is the word “should”, as in “I should have known better” or “I shouldn’t have done that.” Most of the time when we use this word with ourselves, we resist learning, because should implies that there is no choice. Human beings, when hearing any kind of demand, tend to resist because it threatens our autonomy – our strong need for choice. We have this reaction to tyranny even when it’s internal tyranny in the form of a should.”

Marshall B. Rosenberg – Nonviolent Communication

Things I thought we would have fixed by now

I think I must look on things a bit too simplistically.

I am convinced that we ought to be able to fix certain things, but as we haven’t fixed them in a long time then it’s clearly not as easy to fix them as I think it is.

Here are a few of the things that I thought we would have sorted by now, but haven’t. This is only a few, because once I got started I nearly couldn’t stop:

Media Conversion Dongles

How many bits of cable do you have in your laptop bag that convert one thing to another thing? I currently have four, the most used being the USB-C to HDMI converter. I limit the volume that I carry for personal health reasons, but the combinations are potentially huge. It’s not even enough to carry something that covers the four major standards – DisplayPort, HDMI, USB and VGA. Each of these standards has its own set of variant, there are three different sizes of HDMI and another three different sizes of USB, and that’s not including USB-C.

Meeting Room Equipment Connectivity

You walk into a meeting room, before you is a table with various cables sticking out of various sockets. This is one of those fancy rooms with a touchscreen interface that allows you to select various things like the position of blinds, the inputs to the visual equipment and the depth of the carpet pile.

You notice that one of the cables aligns with the video output on your laptop (for once you don’t need a media conversion dongle). You plug your device in, you select the correct input on the touchscreen interface and…nothing. You check that your laptop is sending a signal, which it is, but…nothing. You select other inputs on the touchscreen thing and apart from a brief excursion to a strange TV channel…nothing.

This is an important meeting so you came early but the clock has decided to go double-time on you and your set-up time is fast running out.

Eventually you get a picture on the huge 4K screen at the front, but for reasons no-one understands you can only get it to display 1024×768 resolution as a postage stamp in the middle.

You decide to forgo audio.

Why is this so difficult?

Permanent Markers on Whiteboards

Almost every meeting room I have ever been into has a collection of pens available for use, but they are nearly always a jumble of permanent and whiteboard markers. Next to this scattering of pens is often a pile of paper towels and an aerosol can containing a substance to get permanent marker off a whiteboard.

Why isn’t there a standard for the size or shape of the pens to make it easy to differentiate between whiteboard markers and permanent markers? Wouldn’t that be any easy solution to avoid the problem?

Yes, I know they normally say on them, but people don’t always look and one of the drawbacks of the substance in the aerosol can is that it also removes the markings from the outside of the pens.

Browser Switching

The browser is the basic access capability for the Internet so I would have expected it to have become a commodity by now, but I don’t think that a day goes by without me needing to switch between different browsers.

This wouldn’t be too bad, but the problems that I see with different browsers are all highly annoying glitches. I get part way through a process and something doesn’t look right, or something doesn’t load, or things just hang. I’d prefer that a particular browser failed to start a page than get part way through and then fail.

Printing

Why is this so, so, complicated?

I’m not, primarily talking about the physical handling of ink/toner and paper here although that can be a problem.

My challenge is the process of getting from device to desired output. I’m imagining all of those sheets of paper that you see around any office printer that contain one line of print on them. I’m also talking about those times when you just need one page of something, but somehow it manages to stretch itself out over five pages. Then there are those times when you send things to the printer and nothing prints, so you send it again, then you go to the printer and there are three copies of what you asked for. How does this happen?

Yes, I know I shouldn’t be printing anything, but there are times when paper is necessity.

Calendaring and Scheduling

How many online calendars do you have? I have at least 5.

Why so many? It’s because various tools form part of my scheduling experience and those calendars don’t work together. They each want to own the thing that I’m doing in their tool.

They each, helpfully, provide iCal export and import capabilities, but that’s not really practical and I shouldn’t have to be copying files around for something as basic as time management.

I can get a single view of all of these calendars together because there are tools for that, but that’s still not very helpful because no one can see my availability other than me.

Password

I don’t think I need to explain this one.

Why do we still have passwords?

Video Conferencing

If you do any video conferencing you’ll know that we still have a lot to do in this area. We can barely get audio conferencing working in many situation let alone seamless and reliable video.

For a while I tracked how much longer after the scheduled start time audio conferences started – the average was 6 minutes. Compare that to walking into a meeting room and getting started (without equipment – see earlier comment on Meeting Room Equipment Connectivity.)

People have tried all sorts of technical solutions to these problems but the reality is, if we are honest, none of them are what we really hoped for when we imagined seamless video communications.

Open Plan Offices

I’ll leave this one here.

More Features = Lower Utility

There are many situations when I want to buy a new something but the new features that have been added to the latest model of the something make my heart sink. In many situations the new features take away from the primary purpose of the something.

I used to have a Bluetooth headset that only connected to one device. It was difficult to get connected, but once it was connected it worked. Then it broke. I bought myself a newer version of the headset with the promise that it was easy to connect and could connect to more than one device. This new headset does indeed connect to more than one device, unfortunately it gets confused about which device is playing sound and it’s almost impossible to make it switch. It even loses connection when it’s only paired to one device. The two-connected-devices feature destroyed the utility of the headphones.

I have more examples, but I won’t bore you with them now because this post is already long enough.

Are we really so desperate for new features that we are willing to compromise the primary reason for buying the item?

How about you?

I’m sure that I’m not the only one?

“That doesn’t sound very agile?”

I’ve heard this phrase a number of times recently. The normal context is this:

  • Manager: “I must have the important widget for ABC Corporation by the end of the week.”
  • Product Owner: “Why?”
  • Manager: “Because we promised it to them last night?”
  • Product Owner: “I’ll have a look at the current work in progress and discuss what we can do with the team in the morning stand-up meeting. Because this is a new item, not in the plan for the current sprint I’m not sure that we can do anything by the end of the week.”
  • Manager: “That doesn’t sound very agile?”

There’s a miscommunication here. What the Manager has said to the Product Owner makes no sense to the Product Owner because what they have heard is “Well, that doesn’t sound very Agile?” with a great big capital “A”. What the Product Owner has defined IS Agile, it may not meet the Manager’s expectation of agile, but they are different things.

See: Office Speak: “Agile with a capital ‘A’” and “agile with a small ‘a'”

Somewhere along the road Manager Types have picked up the impression that they can ask Agile Teams to do whatever they want and it will be done at the drop of a hat. In their understanding Agile equates to “no planning” when the reality is that Agile means “planning differently”.

I suspect that this impression of Agile as ultimate flexibility is derived solely from the name and not from any study of the practices of Agile. In many situations I suspect that the Manager Types haven’t done any training on Agile and are simply fab-surfing with the hope that the latest fad will, at last, be the answer to all of their problems. What they haven’t realised is that Agile will only be an answer to some/many of their problems if they engage and embrace it, and to do that they need to understand it.

Stuck Between Reality and Rationality

There’s a piece of street furniture in my home town that is famous. It’s not a fancy statue, or even a bench. It has it’s own twitter account with thousands of followers, and it’s own listing on Google Maps, with 38 reviews. It’s even got its own tag on the local news site.

It’s know as the Fishergate Bollard.

Rather than famous, perhaps a better word for the Fishergate Bollard is infamous. It’s not known for its beauty, or it’s historic symbolism, it’s known because vehicles keep knocking it over and parking on top of its plinth:

It’s garnered so much interest that someone even submitted a Freedom on Information Request to find out how much it was costing the local council to keep fixing it, the answer – about £1,400 a year.

You would have thought that this was a relatively easy problem to resolve, but this has been going on for over 3 years. Why so long to get it fixed? I’m only guessing, but I suspect that there is an ongoing tension within the roads authority between rationality and reality.

I’ve driven past the bollard a number of times over recent years and I can’t see any rational reason why people drive into the bollard, but the reality is that they do.

Some people complain that it’s not tall enough, or bright enough, which I can kind of get, but it’s not small. If this bollard isn’t big enough, how big would it rationally need to be?

The Fishergate Bollard was created as part of major road renovation scheme which some people loved and others hated. Changing it would seem like a retreat from the original renovation concept, but the reality is that cars, vans and buses all park on top of it.

There are definitely times in my life when I get stuck between rationality and reality. There are things that happen which I can’t rationally explain. There are technical things that rationally should work. There are things that rationally should only take a certain amount of time. The reality is often different and yet I plough on in the hope that my rationality will overcome the reality.

“Well this should work.” I say to myself after the fifth or sixth failed attempt. I speak the words of Robert the Bruce, king of Scotland (maybe) to myself “If at first you don’t succeed try, try and try again.” and rationally commit to persistence and ignore the reality.

I’m not sure I know the correct balance between persistence and giving in, but I do know that I regularly find myself stuck between rationality and reality. My life would be simpler if I gave in to the reality earlier more often, but I’m not sure I would have learnt so many lessons along the way if I hadn’t gone through the rational adventure.

Perhaps what I experience as an individual, many organisation experience collectively.

Header Image: This is a cove at Cleit/Cleat on the beautiful Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. They aren’t visible on the picture, but there are seals basking in the sunshine on the rocks. The water was so clear that we watched other seals playing in the water.