Archive for December, 2009

Tool Inertia

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a caveperson named Pog.  Pog had a stone attached to a stick with a length of tendon.  Pog was very proud of his invention that made getting firewood easier & getting food easier.  Sure, the type of stone he used tended to flake and break often, but he was able to find replacement stones of the same kind easily.  Other cavepeople even copied his tool and made their own.

One day, Pog saw another caveperson, Grog, with a tool that had a shiny black head instead of dull grey like his.  Grog had discovered a deposit of obsidian and improved on Pog’s invention!  Pog found himself gathering wood in the same area as Grog and was amazed to see how much faster Grog was able to cut pieces of wood using his sharper and more durable tool.  Grog was happy to show any other cavepeople where the obsidian was, and many went with him to get their own pieces of obsidian.

Pog, however, had been using his dull grey stone tool for a long time and was comfortable with it.  He knew it took much longer to do everything, but the fear of trying to learn and use an new tool kept him from changing to the better obsidian blade.  Besides, Pog had invented the dull grey stone cutting tool, how could he abandon it!  In time, the obsidian users outperformed the dull grey stone users by such a margin that all the dull grey stone users died out and ended up merely as fossils buried in the soil.

How sad…if only Pog had not been afraid to adopt the newer, better tool!


OK, you got me.  That was a rather long winded way of pointing out that we humans often stick with what we know and are comfortable with rather than trying new things–even if there is a strong probability that the new thing will make our work easier and/or better in some way.

We saw this happen twentyish years ago with the migration from manual drafting to CAD (computer aided design).  Thinking back in your career, you can probably remember situations where you saw people and/or organizations resist change that would have benefited them.


So should we go ahead and adopt every new tool that looks like it might benefit us in some way?  Of course not–you don’t want to be a member of the flavor of the month club, endlessly hopping from one half baked innovation to the next.


You still need to perform due diligence to ensure that a tool is truly going to benefit you.  Once you have performed due diligence, however, don’t let tool inertia bind you forever to the devil that you know!

Dean Whitford, B.Comm.
Chief Operating Officer

See You On The Internets!

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Today’s headline is courtesy of a real estate agent’s advertisement on my favorite radio station, SONiC 102.9 FM Edmonton.  The agent diligently repeats their web site address a couple of times and invites us all to visit and see their listed properties.  Being ‘detail oriented’, it makes me a little crazy every time I hear the ad and have to listen to the cheery closing line ‘See you on the Internets!’.  There is, of course, only one Internet…not a whole bunch.  And, yes, I am well aware there is a less polite way of describing those who are detail oriented…but I am trying to keep this blog family friendly so won’t be using ‘that’ word.


So am I writing today to pick on poor real estate agents and radio ad copy writers that accidentally pluralize ‘Internet’?  Nope, I am writing today because each time I hear the  advertisement it reminds me that not everybody on the planet is ‘in’ the information technology business.  This is important to remember for everyone involved in making or changing applications in any way:  project managers, software architects, developers, quality assurance staff, documentation writers, and technical support staff.

You can design and build the most fantastic application in terms of functionality and rock solid quality.  Without being usable by the intended audience, however, such an application is just as doomed to fail as one that is sparse in features and bug-ridden.


How can you ensure usability?  First, it is important to understand that usability does have some core characteristics that apply across the vast majority of user audiences.  These are such things as following Windows conventions for the placement of menus, buttons, button names, button actions, etc.  In this regard, it is very important to NOT reinvent the wheel, i.e. stick with what is out there in common use.  Folks will thus have a head start on understanding how to run your application.

Second, usability beyond those core elements does change from user type to user type.  An application to help developers find memory leaks should thus have a user interface that differs materially from a bank teller application.


So the core conventions are easy to determine and follow.  It is the special nuances that your particular set of users are expecting that are the difficult part to discover and implement.  You will need to determine who your users are going to be, what area of expertise they have, the terminology that is common among them all, and the lowest common denominator of information technology competence.

Each industry has its own ‘language’–terms not used anywhere else, or meanings for words that differ from how we use the same words outside the industry.  If your application is to appeal to these users and also to ease their learning of your application, you must be aware of these terminology needs and make use of them–or at least avoid any ‘faux pas’ by using words in wrong ways.


When you are looking to determine the lowest common denominator of information technology competence, you are not looking for the single most technologically challenged user in the group and then building the user interface to accommodate for them.  Your application would drive everyone else crazy in trying to be too simple to run!  Remove the outliers from consideration and look to where you find a strong cluster of users at the lowest level of information technology competence.  That’s your target of where to make your application usable with user interface design.


Finally, if your user clusters are varied in industry and IT competence, you can always bundle different user interface packages to suit each cluster.  Investing the time to make your application as usable as possible to each different audience you wish to sell to will pay off well in increased sales, happier users, and reduced technical support needs.

Hey, do you think ‘See you on the Internets!’ has any change of dislodging ‘All your base are belong to us.’ from fame and fortune?

See you on the Internets,
Dean Whitford, B.Comm.
Chief Operating Officer