29 January 2011

Time-on-task and managing your expectations of technology

If you're in the process of accomplishing a task, it's a nuisance, a cognitive load, and a demotivater to be pulled off track by technology not performing as you'd expect it to.

Few of us pull our expectations out of thin air. We come to have them based on past performance of technology, on what we hear from others (and the media), and on what we believe the technology should be able to do, given what we know about it.

Dropbox is a cloud-based file repository. You upload files, during which time you see a little circular arrows telling you the file is uploading. When a check-mark appears it's supposed to be uploaded. In Dropbox. In the cloud.

I may only have a partial understanding of how this all works, but I expect that a 450KB file uploaded to Dropbox on one laptop, sitting next to another, on the same wireless network, is available (without doing anything) on the second computer pretty much immediately. Why wouldn't it be? Unless what I see in Dropbox on one computer is an instance of the "box", not the actual box. I dunno. All I do know is that, it should work like this.

But it didn't.  The activity (the upload) that happened 40 minutes ago, doesn't register on the second computer. Do I need to reboot? Is there button to push to update or refresh the box? I didn't see one.

I know work arounds; that's not the issue. I worked around it. The issue is this: It's a BIG user-experience problem. User experiences like these, that complicate the task at hand by adding an emotional and cognitive load to the process, are unnecessary. With more thought, designers could anticipate them.

I manage my expectations by mentally documenting these experiences and making upfront decisions about using technologies based on them. I don't buy the techno-centrist argument that a "new way of doing things" (like cloud computing) trumps the hassle of doing it. The underlying assumption is that the "new way" is inherently better by virtue of it's novelty. What happened to If it's not broken, don't fix it.