« Teaching a Horse to Talk | Main | The Incredible Badness of the Seattle Mariners »

April 30, 2010

Feeling More Productive vs. Feeling Less Unproductive

Question: Would you rather spend 10 minutes drawing some cool graphics in Powerpoint, only to discover that there was a SmartArt that would have done it for you in a few seconds; or spend 5 minutes typing in bullet points and then have the program crash and lose what you typed?

I suspect that most people would mind the second one a lot less, even though technically the first one wasted more of your time. In the first case you still felt like you were doing something; in the second you felt like your time was wasted (in fact, Office these days has very good auto-save and the second scenario is unlikely, but it's just an example).

I mention this because when software designers think of productivity they seem to focus on the first kind of productivity--helping the user do something they already do, but faster--not the second--preventing the user from losing work they have done. What really annoys me about computers is when I spend time on something and then it is lost. When I worked at Softimage back in the mid-1990s, I discovered they their 3D editing product, and its competitors, were notorious for crashing a lot. But they also all had really good auto-save, so when they crashed you just restarted them, and you only lost a few seconds worth of work. This would horrify a typical Microsoft developer--just engineer it not to crash, and then you don't have to worry about auto-save! But very niche-y products like 3D tools tend to be designed by people who used to be the customer, so to them it can make perfect sense to crash and recover, because they understand that from a user's perspective, that is the behavior thet will make them feel like they lost the least amount of productivity.

In fact I realize that this is why Outlook's incessant "the attachment to this email has changed, would you like to save it" messages annoy me. A little bit of it is because I have to think, and make sure I closed the right email--the one that I just opened that Word decided to reformat on its own, not the one that I've spent 15 minutes typing. But it's mainly the attitude, that the designers of the software have chosen not to distinguish between work that the computer did for me, which is completely repeatable, and work I did myself, which I can only do by spending the same amount of time again.

Just today somebody I know posted on Facebook, "screwed by cloud computing again (hit send on long email, says service is down and email is gone)." This is actually my biggest complaint about cloud services--the fact that you are often dependent on a browser to store your in-progress work, and browsers don't auto-save things. It's not that browsers couldn't do this; they could fairly easily remember that you had a chunk of form data typed in the last time you visited a particular page. They just don't, for no obvious reason except that people don't think of "not losing the user's time investment" as the key to making them feel productive. Instead they prefer improvements like making their javascript execute half a second faster, which may in the end make the more productive, but doesn't make them FEEL more productive.

Posted by AdamBa at April 30, 2010 02:08 PM


AFAICT cloud apps do auto-save. Gmail's had auto-save for a long time. Google docs and spreadsheets save everything as you do it (the "Save" menu item is mostly there to make you feel good).

Agreed though that it would be nice if browsers had some built-in functionality to remember state esp. for careless navigation or closing on more naive apps.

Posted by: Moishe at April 30, 2010 04:18 PM

It's true that in these days of AJAX, a web-based app could auto-save back to the server...but many simple ones don't.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at May 1, 2010 08:57 AM