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.

Document Driven v Data Driven

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about forms. Why forms? Forms give us fascinating insights into that way that organisations work.

A Life of Forms

We are surrounded, some would say inundated, by forms:

  • Banking runs on forms.
  • Insurance wouldn’t survive without forms.
  • Most organisations have thousands of ad hoc forms for various diverse purposes.
  • One of the worst things to happen in some organisations is that a situation arises for which there is no form.
  • Visit a medical professional and somewhere within the dialogue a form will become necessary.
  • Subscribe to any service and forms will be used as part of the contracting process.
  • Start a new employment and you are likely to spend much of your first day completing forms.
  • Our birth and our death are accompanied by forms.
  • How many times a day do you complete a two-field form in order to gain access to some technology.
  • Interact with a government organisation and a form will be required.

Sometimes these forms are online, web page, or even forms on mobile devices. There are still, however, many situations where forms are completed with a pen. How many hours have you spent trying to complete a pseudo form that was sent to you as a Word or PDF document.

Document Driven Business

There are many PowerPoint decks, Excel spreadsheets and Word documents that are in essence forms. They are created from a template that sets the titles and contents of each slide/worksheet/section. The person completing them is expected to say certain things in certain ways, just like a form.

  • This first slide has the title on including the reference number, person presenting and target date.
  • The next slide has the required content on and only this content.
  • The following slide will explain what it is you are going to do.
  • The penultimate slide will outline the business case in the supplied table.
  • The final slide will contain the risk register, using the supplied table headings.
  • No other slides may be added.

It’s a form, isn’t it?

A Form to Transact

Each of these form-types exist to support a transaction:

“Once you have completed sections 1 to 5 and 8 of the loan application form we will proceed to the next phase of you application.”

“You are required to complete a tax return of which sections a to e are mandatory.”

“We’ll proceed with your project once you have provided the project initiation template document.”

The boundary of the transaction is defined by the form, without the form nothing moves forward, or backward.

This way of working produces a number of effects:

  • Over preparation – in order to make sure that a transaction can complete documents tend to be over-worked. Many hours are spent making sure that every detail in a form/document are correct to a level of detail that is not required to move onto the next phase, but everyone strives for perfection to avoid rework at all costs. A small amount of over-work is compounded as a process is worked end-to-end. Imagine how much work goes into producing a set of 40 document? Add a little bit of over-preparation to each of them and the amount of effort being expended is huge.
  • Over-stating – The over-preparation of documents often includes over-stating, where things that aren’t required in the document are stated in the document “just-in-case”. The problem with this superfluous information is that it becomes part of the record and is then used by people who make decisions despite its heritage and trustworthiness.
  • Point-in-time perspectives – The information in the form/document was mostly correct at a particular time on a particular day, but that’s all that can be said about it. Any perspective that is taken on that document is locked into the context at that time. The information in the document isn’t being refreshed, it was completed, a transaction took place and now everything within the document is, at best, history. Yet, people will continue to refer back to it as information way beyond the valid life of the data contained within it. The reality is, even before the document is concluded the data within it will be out of date.
  • Action blocking – A form/document represents the end of one activity and the start of another – a phase-shift. The next phase can’t start until it has received the information from the previous phase. Even if an element of the next phases has all that it needs to proceed it can’t until the transaction has been agreed. Consider how many actions are expected to be undertaken following the transaction of a 100 page document? How many of those actions could have safely been undertaken way before the transacting of the document?
  • Phases based on documents – The definition of a document as the point of transaction means that production of the document often becomes the definition of the phases/stages of an activity. This way of planning has little to do with the amount of effort involved, or the value being produced, it just represents a transaction. An activity that only exists to produce a document is a bad activity.

Data Drive Business

Let’s turn our attention to data-driven activities.

The document has been with us for thousands of years, but we no longer need to work at such a coarse level. The information that is placed into a form was not generated by the form. A form is just a place to consolidate information that already exists elsewhere. When you are asked about your date-of-birth in a form you are simply recording information that has existed, for some of us, for many years. So why not link the data directly with the intent for which it is needed. Why bother placing a date of birth on a piece of paper when one system could ask another system whether I’m older than 18 and get the correct answer back.

There are situations where data isn’t enough and a set of information may need to be brought together to tell a particular story. Imagine a design for a network topology, the design may be the first time that it’s been outlined. This isn’t to say that in this situation a document is required, it’s just to highlight that an intermediate step from current state to future state may be required to fill gaps in the data. Even in this network topology example a diagram with meta-data is probably sufficient to communicate the change being proposed and for people to agree to transact. Once the change has been implemented the diagram is no longer required because the current state information becomes the record.

Taking the network topology example even further, the need for a human-readable design demonstrates a gap in policy and understanding. If the change could be codified in a way that a policy mechanism could understand and assess, then the change could have taken place without the need for a diagram. If, as an example, an application needs to add more resources to the network, the network would respond on the basis of the data provided and the policy defined. Likewise, once those resources are no longer required the policy engine would turn the resources off. All of this would happen before someone has filled in half of the “necessary” paperwork.

Our job, as humans, should be to assess and define the required actions for the exception, for those situations where data and policy is not sufficient for a decision to be made.

Time for Transformation

For much of the life of IT may applications have been little more than form replacements and that has given us some productivity gains. In many ways we are only just at the beginning of a transformation from a world driven by documents to one driven by data  This will require a profound change in the way that we think and act.

Organisations that continue to rely upon forms (including apps that are replacing forms) will be overtaken by the machines.

Header Image: This is one from a recent morning walk along the lanes near my house. I’ve always loved the shapes of tree skeletons in the winter.

The 5 Phases of a Reply-to-All Storm

Reply-to-all Storm: The set of events that occur when a group of people decide that the appropriate response to an email is to reply-to-all. In nearly all of these situations the replies add no value other than to fill-up the email account of everyone on the distribution list.

I’ve observed many a reply-to-all storm and it occurs to me that they have a set of phases to them, have a missed any?

Phase 1: Initial Contact

I’m not sure quite what the anatomy of an email needs to be to start a reply-to-all storm but there are some characteristics that will increase the likelihood of a storm starting. Emails with a pointless subject and equally pointless content are my favourites, they create a response in certain people that is completely disproportionate to the initial contact. It’s rare that a reply-to-all storm is generated from a meaningful email.

I’m pretty sure that the likelihood of a reply-to-all storm increases exponentially with the number of recipients on the initial distribution. Emails to 500 people aren’t likely to result in a storm, emails to 5,000 people have a much higher probability, correctly crafted emails to 50,000 people are almost certain to result in a storm.

Phase 2: Initial Reply

Someone has to be the person to start the storm. Much like a firework requires an ignition a reply-to-all storm requires someone to get everyone started. It helps if the initial reply is as benign as the initial contact.

The purpose of the initial reply email is to create a release valve that gives everyone else permission to participate in the storm. A single drip doesn’t create a flood, but it does make a pathway for what is to follow.

Phase 3: Engage the Pack

Two emails do not constitute a storm, but that’s all that the pack requires for those who are going to participate to become engaged. The pack, in general, only have one response which may use different words to these, but they are basically all saying the same things:

  • “Why was I sent this email?”
  • “Stop sending me these emails.”
  • “Remove me from this distribution list.”

None of the individuals involved in the pack realise the irony of their actions.

By this point most people have disengaged by clicking “Ignore” or “Mute” in their email app but this is where volumes come in, all that the storm needs to continue is one more person in the cohort to keep it going.

Phase 4: The Anti-Pack Becomes Engaged

The anti-pack’s role is to keep the reply-to-all storm going by telling people to stop replying-to-all. We are now in double irony territory.

These emails come in various grades depending upon the frustration of the recipient. This appears to be one of the few occasions where it has become acceptable to use capital lettering in an email subject. The use of the words “IMPORTANT”, “URGENT” or “STOP” become prevalent as does the use of bold, coloured and enlarged content all saying the equivalent of “please stop”.

Phase 5: The Die Down

Thankfully reply-to-all storms rarely last longer than a day, in my experience. You can sometimes get someone who tries to restart it the following day, not realising that everyone has already left the party, but that rarely does a restart result in a full storm emerging.

As quickly as they come, they leave.

Avoiding the Reply-to-all Storm

People have talked about getting rid of this problem for decades and yet it still persists, you may be wondering how we stop it. The simple answer is that you can’t because the instigator of the action is that weakest link in most processes – the human. You can do many things to avoid it, but stopping it altogether requires humans to behave in a logical way and that’s not going to happen.

Stop the Self-Inflicted Pain | Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let others do it to us?

Do two posts make a series? Anyway, this is second post looking at some modern-day frustrations where we look inside things that we do that are daft and dangerous. Some of them you may not realise are doing you damage, others probably already drive you a bit loopy. Part 1 is here: Stop the Self Inflicted Pain | How Much Better Could Your Life Be?

We have three more topics for today:

Devices in Meetings

What is the purpose of a meeting? Do you know? In almost every case, the addition of screens into that meeting is harming that purpose.

Most meetings that I attend, if I attend in person, are based around a large table. The table is littered with laptops, phones and tablets. People join the meeting with every intention of contributing wholeheartedly to it, but within minutes they are distracted. They don’t mean to be, but they are powerless to stay away from the distracting movements that are occurring before them.

“But” I can hear you say…

“But, what if I want to take notes electronically?” If you are far more disciplined than me, then perhaps you can have a powerful, internet connected, multi-skilled device there in-front of you and only use it to take notes. If that is you, then I take my hat off to you, but it’s still not as good for you as writing notes.

“But, what if I need the material off my laptop to inform the meeting?” That may be a perfectly valid point, but it should be limited and clearly understood in the objectives for the meeting, often it’s an excuse.

“But, what happens if someone needs to contact me?” This is the ultimate expression of the problem. If you take a device into a meeting because you think that someone may need to contact you, then you will be spending a significant amount of time in that meeting distracted by the potential that someone is going to contact you. “Has my phone run yet?” “What’s was that email that has just come in?”

Multi-tasking

One of the main reasons that devices in meetings is such a bad idea is that it draws us into multitasking and we are very poor at multitasking.

There are numerous experiments that show our inability to task switch, but perhaps we need the kids to show us how it is (not) done:

There’s also growing evidence that the impact of persistent multitasking is lasting harm. You’re less effective while you are multitasking, but you are also permanently numbing down your brain.

Aside from the impact on our brains there are situations where multitasking is downright dangerous. Those of you who still think you can text and drive are kidding yourself:

It has become normal many of us to multi-screen in front of the TV every night. Even if we are only using our tablet or phone while the adverts are on, we are still expecting our brains to multitask. Those advert may be annoying, but rather than picking up a screen we would be much better standing up and having a stretch.

This isn’t a new subject for me, but we still have a very long way to go before people listen.

Open Plan Offices

Once the darling of every office manager the open plan office is a disaster for productivity.

You don’t need to look any further for evidence of this than this invention from Panasonic:

wearspace_rolling

These are a pair of blinkers for the office, for those times when you need some peace and quiet to get your job done! Seriously!

Again, I hear that “but” word entering into your head. The primary “but” for open plan offices is: “But, doesn’t it improve communication between teams and enable more creative interactions?” Let me put it as simply as I can: “No.”

Open plan offices drive down interactions:

The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73 per cent less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67 per cent and 75 per cent respectively.

Most people spend their time in an open plan office with headphones plugged in which makes it difficult to know whether they are one a phone call so it’s normal to instant message them, even if they are on the next desk.

How many more things?

That’s eight different areas that we’ve covered in two posts, I wonder how many more there are? Imagine if each one improves your productivity, or wellness, by just 2% we would have improved our lives by at least 16%!

Posting to My Facebook Profile – No More

I’m no longer posting from this blog to Facebook. It’s not because I’ve decided that I no longer want to post a link to Facebook. It is because Facebook have decided that they want to take away the ability for services to do that posting to my profile on my behalf.

I used to use the publicize features WordPress to send an update as I published a new post straight to Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter, but Facebook have removed the capability to post there. I’ll still post to LinkedIn and Twitter.

Previously the way to do this was through a service like IFTTT, but they were using the same API and no longer work either.

There is an alternative, and that is to create a Facebook Page for my blog and to get the posts published there. That would require everyone I know on Facebook to also subscribe to my Facebook Page and I think that they probably have better things to do.

I could, also, click a few buttons and do it manually, but life’s too short for that.

So, for now, there will be no updates from my blog onto my Facebook Profile. But, if your normal interaction with me is via Facebook this post probably makes no difference to you, because you don’t know it exists, because this post won’t get posted on my Facebook Profile either. You won’t know what you don’t know.

“When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.”
George Bernard Shaw

Update: As others have reminded me, Buffer is also impacted by this change, so any updates I would have posted from Buffer won’t be coming from that route either.

Technologist – Agents of Social Change

The other day I sat down with a colleague and recorded a podcast in which we were chatting about the ways in which technology drives social change.

Out of the back of that podcast a couple of people have asked about getting more details and this is partially a response to those requests.

One of the social changes that I became aware of recently was the way in which we now use YouTube to solve problems. We used to have a friend who we would ask and they’d show us, or we’d read a manual, now we watch a video on YouTube.

Technology has always driven social change. As I sit at this desk I overlook a street that has been tarmacked to allow cars to run on it. Many of the people around me drive to work, something that they wouldn’t have been able to do before the advent of the car precipitated a social change. The arrival of the car has changed the way we now build cities and the way we interact with our neighbours. The social change caused by the car hasn’t all been positive though, decreased mobility has caused many health issues, early cars weren’t very safe,  environmental pollution is another factor, the growth of the car also lead to the creative destruction of the coach building and many horse related industries.

The people who saw the potential of the motorcar became agents of the social change that it brought. Some of those social change entrepreneurs became celebrated, others were more hidden, but eventually there were millions of people involved in that social change.

In time society recognised the change that was happening and started to build regulations around it seeking to protect against the problems being caused. Car safety tests became an industry partly because regulations demanded safer cars.

These technology driven social changes are not one-off events, they are happening all of the time, probably sparked by the first person who worked out how to create fire or perhaps even earlier than that.

As technologist we are driving changes in our society, whether we like it or not. We are the agents of social change, and that cycle of invention-change-regulation is playing out before our eyes every day.

Much of the technology change is enabling things that our parents could only dream of. I can’t imagine being in a situation where I can’t communicate with all of my family members. The Internet has enable boundless communication to almost every corner of the world, and mostly for free. Every day I talk to people from at least two other continents and often more than that. That’s changing the way that our society works. I have friends who speak to their adult children every day and sometimes multiple times a day. That wasn’t possible when I was a young adult, even if I wanted to speak to my parents every day, I couldn’t afford to.

There are technologies coming that will significantly change the way we live our lives in the future. There’s much talk about the impact of robots and jobs that will be impacted, but there’s also a whole set of new industries that are going to be enabled. Robots will give some people with medical challenges a quality of living that they can’t achieve. We’re already having conversations about the regulatory frameworks that are going to be needed for those robots.

The in-ear translator is already here, if not mainstream, a role we might have expected to be done by a fish at some point in the future 🙂 These are just the latest in a growing list of technologies that we may choose to wear about our person in the future.

There are a number of recent examples of the regulatory steps in the cycle.

The World Economic Forum 2018 at Davos is currently meeting and one of the big subjects is the impact of social media companies:

Social networks would be regulated “exactly the same way that you regulated the cigarette industry”, Benioff told CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “Here’s a product – cigarettes – they’re addictive, they’re not good for you, maybe there’s all kinds of different forces trying to get you to do certain things. There’s a lot of parallels.

“I think that, for sure, technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and that product designers are working to make those products more addictive, and we need to rein that back as much as possible,” he added.

Facebook should be ‘regulated like cigarette industry’, says tech CEO – The Guardian

And also:

The prime minister is to ask investors to put pressure on tech giants to deal with extremist content on social networks.

Theresa May will say at the World Economic Forum in Davos that investors should consider the social impact of the firms they invest in.

Social networks need to stop providing a platform for terror, extremism and child abuse, she will stress.

Davos: Theresa May to warn tech firms over terror content – BBC News

Which is an interesting call from Theresa May as that’s exactly what some Apple’s major investors did recently:

Two of the largest investors in Apple are urging the iPhone maker to take action against smartphone addiction among children over growing concerns about the effects of technology and social media on the youth.

In an open letter to Apple on Monday, New York-based Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) said the firm must do more to help children fight addiction on its devices.

Apple investors call for action over iPhone ‘addiction’ among children – The Guardian

Meanwhile invention continues at a pace and the agents of social change go about exploiting that technology for the benefit of customers and the cycle moves on.

An inventors moral responsibility for their invention is an long debated subject. I think that the moral responsibility on those of us who utilise a technology to do so in a way that doesn’t bring harm is a bit clearer, but what do we do about all of the unforeseen consequences? Perhaps that’s a post for another day.