Friday, December 23, 2005
  TECH: Your Desktop is not King Kong

One of the collateral effects of the massively consolidated Operating System environment that we enjoy today (read: Windows), is the lack of customization in a given user's desktop environment. With one dominant vendor in the marketplace, Windows has become the one-size-fits-all solution for computers (While Linux and Mac OSX are options, I would hesitate to call either mainstream as of yet).

This unique set of circumstances creates a fundamental inefficiency in today's use of technology. The idea behind computers is the ability to automate repetitive tasks that do not require human judgment. The best example of this is the calculator. At its core, a calculator embodies the ability to do simple calculations over and over again to solve complex problems. Thus 2 * 10 is nothing more than the calculator doing 2 + 2 ten times, which every human can do with enough time. The calculator does a repetitive task (2 + 2) over and over to benefit us (humans) in doing complex problems (2 * 2222222). While the average person could conceivably do these calculations (at the 2 + 2 level), the calculator creates more efficiency by doing them for us, in order to solve complex problems that would take a person much longer to solve.

(On a sidenote, it would be an interesting exercise to conduct a survey asking whether each person, given ample time, could conduct the functions of a calculator. By contrast, I would then ask them if they could add two binary numbers together over and over again, which is a simplified version of what a calculator does.)

This is all a roundabout way of saying that computers are designed to do the work that we as humans shouldn't have to: repetitive tasks that require little exercise of judgment. Today however, because of the standardization of the desktop, the average computer user is probably spending more time conducting repetitive tasks to satisfy their computer's requirements for a given task than efficiency gained from it. This is the genesis of such comments as "When we used to create TPS reports all we did was type them up." In the modern office, one can see the myriad of workarounds to accomplish everyday tasks. Any time a cubicle has a list of steps to accomplish an everyday task, that signifies a loss of efficiency by making a person conduct a repetitive task to satisfy the technology that is supposed to be working for it. Think about each time you sit down a computer for work or play, do you repeat the same sequence of clicks on a daily basis to start a task or navigate between websites? If you do, you are losing efficiency to your computer for no reason.

What is the solution then, you ask. The solution is to adjust the mindset of the average computer user, to make the computer be the one conducting repetitive tasks, not the user. The eventual end of this, I believe, is massive customization. Here is the key point that differentiates this from all other repetitive tasks: in the digital world, there is no overhead in customizing a desktop or a website to each user, and within each user to each task. The cost savings of mass production of physical goods makes it more efficient for a person to pay less for a automobile on the lot but perform the repetitive task of adjusting the seat each time a new driver gets the in car. For your desktop however, that argument falls flat. There is no reason why your computer should not automate those tasks which you repeat on a daily basis. The user has to take the mindset of making the computer work for them, not the other way around.

A small example from my own experiences. I realized that I spend the majority of my time on the internet conducting one of three specific activities: (1) checking my email; (2) searching via Google; (3) surfing for pleasure. However, I was opening my web browser to the same "Home" page and conducting the same sequence of clicks to differentiate between these three distinct tasks. Why? Solution: to create three different browser shortcuts on my desktop, one that opens up to a blank page to expedite searching, the second which loads all my webmail accounts in different tabs upon opening, and the third which opens up to my bookmarks and My Yahoo! for surfing.

Since this is in need of a new statistic, I will say I save approximately 5 clicks per session (clicks being any repetitive and simple human activity done on your desktop) by using my browser shortcuts. Through customization, how many clicks can you save?

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