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how computer systems are stealing our productivity


Developers are to blame: how computer systems steal our productivity

Average users spend up to 20% of their precious time solving banal computer problems, how to avoid this?

Despite the fact that our computers are now much more powerful and better than 15 years ago, they still take up to twenty percent of our time while we work on them, claim researchers from Copenhagen and Roskilde Universities. According to scientists, society can become more productive if systems are rethought and users are more involved in their development.

An endless loading indicator or a program that crashes without saving data? Or maybe systems and interfaces that require illogical procedures or simply do not work as intended? Unfortunately, this kind of “fighting with computers” is still familiar to most of us.

According to researchers, we waste an average of 11% to 20% of our time in front of computers due to systems that don’t work or are so hard to understand that we can’t complete the desired task. And this is a real problem, says Professor Kasper Hornbeck.

“It’s unbelievable that the number is so high. However, most people do get frustrated when using computers and can tell at least one horror story about an important PowerPoint presentation that was not saved, or about a system that crashed at a critical moment. Everyone knows that it is difficult to create IT systems that work perfectly and fully meet the needs of people, but this figure should be much lower, and one of the reasons for this is the lack of participation of ordinary people in the development of programs and systems, ”says Hornbeck.

Professor Morten Herzum emphasizes that most frustrations are associated with the performance of completely ordinary and basic tasks.

“The frustrations aren’t about people using their computers for something very advanced. Most often, they experience problems performing very mundane tasks. This makes it easier for users to get involved in identifying issues, but also means that issues that are not identified and resolved are likely to annoy more users,” says Hertzum.

To study this issue, the researchers interviewed 234 people who spend six to eight hours in front of a computer in their daily work. The researchers asked them to report any situations where the computer didn’t work properly or when the participants were frustrated that they couldn’t complete the task they wanted.

The most common problems encountered by the participants were: “the system worked slowly”, “the system temporarily hung”, “the system crashed”, “it is difficult to find the right things”. The participants had different occupations such as student, accountant, consultant, etc. And some even worked in the IT field, but even they had problems.

“Some of the participants in the study were IT professionals, and most of the other participants were advanced computer users. However, all of them have experienced these problems, and it turns out that this applies to many fundamental functions,” says Kasper Hornbeck.

Study participants also responded that 84% of the episodes had happened before and that 87% of the episodes could recur. And, according to scientists, now we have the same fundamental problems as 15-20 years ago.

“The two biggest categories of problems are still related to the lack of performance of computers and the lack of proper usability of their interfaces,” says Hornbeck.

“Our technology today can do much more, and it has definitely gotten better, but at the same time, we expect even more from it. Even though downloads are now faster, they are often still perceived as annoyingly slow,” adds colleague Morten Herzum.

According to the Danish Statistical Office, in 2018, 88% of Danes used computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets or other mobile devices at work. In this context, new research indicates that the average worker can spend up to a whole day out of the entire work week solving computer problems or simply waiting.

“A lot of productivity is being lost in jobs across Denmark because people can’t do their normal jobs because their computer isn’t working the way it should. This causes a lot of frustration for individual users,” says Kasper Hornbeck.

In other words, if people experience computer problems less often, their productivity, in theory, should increase dramatically, and their level of irritation should decrease. Hornbeck says things can be fixed, for example by investing more resources into rethinking where computer errors come from and how they interfere with users’ work. Alternatively, developers can provide some back-up moves in advance to optimize the user experience in order to increase their multitasking.

That is why software and interface developers should involve more ordinary users in the design of systems in order to make them as easy to use and understand as possible. After all, what may seem logical and convenient to the average developer can be extremely inconvenient and incomprehensible to the end user. According to the researchers, there are no bad users, only poorly designed and implemented systems.

“When we are all surrounded by IT systems that we curse, it is very useful to admit that the problem is probably not with the users themselves, but with those who create the systems. The study clearly shows that there is still a lot of room for improvement, and so we hope it can bring more attention to making systems more user-friendly and productive in the future,” concludes Hornbeck.

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