Monday, June 22, 2009

Tools are 'temporary body parts' (so pay attention to application design)

The BBC News website had an interesting story today: Tools are 'temporary body parts' The researchers writing in Current Biology showed some interesting, if not completely surprising results that after using a tool for an extended period of time, your ability to perform similar tasks without the tool become slower and more 'clumsy'.

"There is a great debate in neuroscience about the representation of the body and representation of space," said Lucilla Cardinali of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) in France.

The researchers were working with a metal grabber and seeing how its extended use affected the user's ability to grab things without the tool. Imagine the damage we do to our ability to perceive our own bodies and perceive the space around us after hours tied to a computer keyboard and a screen 2 feet from our faces. Go further and try and see the confusion of a human brain after extended use of Twitter, IM, phone, Facebook, etc. How confused is a brain in truly perceiving the relationship between location, timezones and human behavior; especially as every one of these mediums cuts us off from the real interaction that we have evolved to trust and enjoy in human relationships.

Now go one step further. Give a person in an office a new software application to use to do their day to day work. More than just email, but for example a new tool for creating quotes for an insurance underwriter. If as a person you are absorbed in that application to do your job, you adapt to the application's shortcomings and come to appreciate its strengths (or perhaps unknowingly adapt to things you just happened to find useful).

I watched the joy on some user's faces just a few days ago when we showed them a demo of a new software solution. They have been doing copy and paste of information between systems for a long time. One tiny piece of our new solution has a built in search with their main system, and the ability to click a result to use that directly in a new piece of work. A simple click and the smiles were shining.

The function took 5 lines of Javascript and some configuration. And it will probably be the most loved piece of the overall application. The users will hopefully come to adapt to (and therefore not be able to live without) other pieces of the solution, though its important to see how such small details can make tools so much more an extension of a person and lead to improved acceptance and productivity.

A post from the Improving It blog

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