What Computing Environment Is Best: The Science of Usability, Part 1

I was asked by a friend to write about how much computing power was needed for specific employees in his office, from receptionists to those who edit videos. At the time I was mostly thinking about ram memory and computer age as it related to processor speed and number of cores. There was indeed a plethora of information from different professionals about what they need in terms of computing power to get the job done. However, thinking back on my years of watching people of different professions and their work capacity with computers and technology, I noticed more areas of poor performance which slow down work, frustrate the user, and limit creativity. I say this because if your knowledge workers are limited in terms of technology, they won’t be able to work at anything approaching the speed of their own thoughts. This results in less creativity, and workers who might feel that their abilities are stagnated. In most workplaces, it is not welcomed by employers when employees mention technology shortfalls in terms of productivity or creativity. When you look at the most successful companies, like Google, large pharmaceutical and scientific companies, financial firms, and even artistic pursuits like music creation, you will see that those most successful companies are treating their employees like rock stars; they give their employees everything they say they need to get the work done. In smaller companies, your day to day and even executive workers may not know that they are hampered by technological insufficiency. That can take many forms that go far beyond memory. The shortfalls in the workplace environment can also be lack of monitor size, a bad chair, and lack of ergonomics in the workspace. Even the color temperature of the lighting should be noted: after all, there is scientific research into environment and productivity that is free and in the public domain, and ignoring helpful intellectual property relevant to one’s mission is an irresponsible way to conduct a business. That’s when I realized that I didn’t need to write an article, I needed to put up a full series on the Science of Usability. This is knowledge that many of us in the Tech World have, but our opinions are often not asked. If it were, it behooves us to learn about usability, which I am returning to update my skills in. In the work world, I've been asked to use an eight year old poorly provisioned computer with a fifteen inch monitor and 1GB of RAM on a bad chair in a loud environment.

There is a science already that is trying to discover this, and they have looked at web design and technology in certain areas, but designing the right technology and environment around the worker, known as Human Centered Design, is still in its infancy. When I say usability is a science, it may sound odd until we look at the definition of a science. Science is the pursuit of and application of knowledge in a systemic, evidence-based method. That is why I feel that Usability is an underutilized science. I was introduced to the Science of Usability when I was working at Columbia University on a team implementing a massive IT enterprise software implementation which had important implications for the strategy of the University. We had to provide an excellent implementation which worked with minimal errors, great efficiency, and input from all of the users to ensure a great result for the four million dollar project budget. When I was working with their stellar IT team, I was very happy to be learning about Usability from leaders in the industry who had learned at IBM and other industry leading corporations. I learned I had strong feelings about usability for a long time, but I didn't have the framework with which to act upon it. As usability was a major focus, I availed myself of the opportunity to learn the basics of this science and then put it to use in practice.

When discussing usability, all facts are related to five quality components:

Learnability: How quickly and intuitively will people be up and running in a production environment?

Efficiency: Are there barriers to the rapid completion of tasks that are not being addressed?

Memorability: When employees return from vacation or sabatical, how quickly can they return to their previous efficiency?

Errors: Quantity of errors as well as ease of recovery need to be analyzed. Are there error-reduction and error-recovery routines available that are not being utilized?

Satisfaction: Just as some cars due to their usability are more luxurious, comfortable, and great to use, your work environment should be also for the ambitious worker. Are there unsatisfactory conditions not being addressed?

If you give your employees everything they need to succeed, everything they need to love doing their work if that is what they came to do, then you will accomplish one of the most important parts of running an outstanding business at maximum profitability. Time lost due to lack of access or speed or comfort are costly to productivity. If they are costly to productivity, these conditions are taxing on the morale of your employees, and even if they have the best possible attitudes, even the most spartan of them will fall victim to fatigue and lack of necessary tools.

Now that it is clearly established that a project of workplace usability is a good idea, the next thing to do is to decide how to go about benchmarking your usability, collect your data, analyze the results, and make recommendations. After that, the responsible business will calculate the ROI, or Return on Investment, of each of the improvement suggestions. To increase the complexity, one needs to do a completely separate usability study on the software your employees use in their intranets.

After studying the ROI for the suggestions, it is time for an executive decision on which solutions to implement. That, of course, is up to you, the reader, with an eye towards profitability and not overspending on solutions. Look to the most successful businesses as your guide in this. Much can be learned for free from research and development they paid for.

In future articles in this series, I will go into depth about how to go about this process. I will research what has worked and not worked for businesses in practice, and I will eventually compile this into a guide for consultants. As nobody calls for a usability consultant, it is incumbent upon office managers, executive management in the area of operations, an IT consultant or employee, or even a partnership between human resources and operations. Decide who the stakeholders are and who will be in charge of these projects. As data is gathered from all employees, all production employees and executives can be considered stakeholders and participants.

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