Mobile productivity: it ain’t about doing more

The primary unmet need for mobile productivity is managing the torrential onslaught of constant communication. Apps and tools that aim to help users “do more” are likely to be self-defeating. On the contrary, we need tools to help us do less.

In my last post, I pointed out that the real problem in productivity technology today is that users need ways to seamlessly share information across their cross-discipline teams.I noted that our collaboration tools ironically create more work. Likewise, many mobile productivity tools actually amplify this problem, by reaching users with the most useless notifications from the most tangential acquaintances, at any time of the day. We need to get smarter about what we deliver to mobile users, by properly managing push notifications, intelligently reading user priorities, and helping mobile workers stay focused on what’s important.

First a little context.

Smartphones are ubiquitous and deeply disruptive

Smartphones are now the majority of cell phones in the developed world. 58% of Americans , 55% of Canadians, and over 50% of people in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the UK, and the Netherlands have smartphones. At first glance, we might be tempted to see this shift as just another type of phone. This shift from feature phones to smartphones represents a qualitatively different business landscape and a different set of behaviors.

The transition from cellphones to smartphones is not trivial; today’s smartphone has the same computing power as a laptop manufactured as recently as 2006.[*]  Smartphones are little computers, while feature phones are simply communication devices. This has clear business implications — as Mary Meeker’s famous operating systems chart shows us.

Smartphone growth signals a new computing landscape

 

Smartphone Behavior Change

Smartphone growth also has deep implications for everyday behavior. We have rapidly become a society in which the majority of people have tiny computers with them at all times. The majority of people are now constantly receiving email, social media notifications, in addition to phone calls and texts. This means the average smartphone user is now reachable not just to his intimate friends and family, but to even the most casual acquaintance. With feature phones, a typical user could expect to be reachable by her partner, and potentially her boss, or her babysitter. Now she is reachable by an old work colleague, a high school friend, or even someone she has never met but who shares her interest in golf. Having dinner, driving home, or working out at the gym were once private affairs. They are now all susceptible to interruptions.

To see how far our communication practices have changed, consider the eeriness of BlackBerry messages emerging, just as the Twin Towers fell. The New York Times interviewed corporate lawyer Lynn Federman, as she recalled sending frantic messages to her husband as she escaped from the World Trade Center:

“I had my cellphone in one hand, and it was useless, and my BlackBerry in the other, and it was my lifeline that day,” Ms. Federman recalled.

At the time, only about 1 million BlackBerrys were in use, worldwide.

Imagine if the same event were to happen today. Millions of tweets would emerge within moments. By way of comparison, the 2014 World Cup final game alone generated 280 million Facebook interactions, and 618,725 tweet PER MINUTE during the game. Clearly mobile technology has already arrived in the workplace — what is this shift doing to productivity?

Granted, smartphone users can turn off notifications, but we have good evidence to suggest they don’t. 4 out of 5 smartphone users check their phones within 15 minutes of waking. The average person checks their smartphone 150 times a day. Researchers have found all that checking is usually related to “information rewards.” 

The transformation at work

Many of these people use their smartphones for work, regardless of where they are. Technology research company IDC estimates that 900 million workers, 35% of the global workforce, is a “mobile worker,” meaning that they use mobile technologies such as laptops, tablets, or smartphones, for work purposes at least occasionally. In the U.S., at least 72% of workers are mobile.  An estimated 174 million people use their smartphones for work purposes. 43% of executives report that they allow employees to work anywhere, on any device they choose and 44% are actively investing in mobile collaborative tools for their employees.

These new streams of information are shifting existing productivity practices. Consider the changes to email alone, which is now 40 years old. In 1997, a prominent scientist told famed “flow” researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that email was getting in the way of her productivity:

“On bad days, I have seventeen or twenty-four email messages.”

See how much has changed, looking at email alone. Users are clearly overwhelmed:

  • Morgan Stanley’s average employee receives 625 emails a week. Intel employees spend 20 hours per week just managing email [1]
  • Part of the problem with email is “waiting to hear back” [2]
  • Email doesn’t help people organize across multiple social “streams” [3]
  • Email has increased the size of the network of people that can communicate with a user, but to a point where ordinary users have a hard time keeping up [4]
  • Email may be “addicting” [5]
  • Email usage dropped by 5% from 69% of all users to 64% from 2007 to 2011 [6]

Clearly, productivity is changing, but we have very little insight into how and in what ways.

What is mobile productivity?

Mobile technology makes workers available, wherever and whenever. Researchers have found consistently that mobile technology makes people more available to workplace demands. Research on managers found that they are available to work demands on average 72 hours per week.   My own research has shown repeatedly that when workplaces have no policies around expected availability, “always available” becomes the norm. I found that among design workers, 44% reported being available to work demands, during the night while they slept!

Rethinking mobile productivity needs

So is “being available” really the most unmet need for mobile workers? Clearly, mobile productivity today means being able to manage the constant torrent of workplace, personal, and news information. Mixing all these streams together onto a single device makes it difficult for users to discern the importance of any one news item. It also trains workers to expect a constant flow of information, instead of taking regular breaks from the news vortex and actually spending time thinking.

At least one new app has found this need and is trying to solve for it. Appfluence attempts to help users separate the “important” from the merely urgent by keeping users focused on their self-defined priorities. Critically, Appfluence isn’t just an app, but integrates into the desktop and mobile spaces equally.

We need other tools that synthesize, minimize, and simplify our working lives. We need tools to help us adroitly opt out of availability demands. We need tools to surface only the  most significant, and to delete the useless. In short, mobile productivity is not about doing more, but consistently doing less.

[*] The BlackBerry Bold 9900, released in 2011, has a 1.2 gHz processor, which would have been the processor speed of the Dell Latitude D420, which was released in 2006. The iPhone 4S has an estimated speed of 800 mHz. Granted, processor speed is not the only measure of computing power. In particular, smartphones are hampered by a lack of reliable network access or slow network speeds. However, the BlackBerry Bold’s processor, given good network access and battery life, can perform as quickly as the Dell Latitude D420 on mundane tasks, such as checking one’s email – a central function we examine in this paper.

 

[1]       L. Conrow, “Developing a Taxonomy for Office Email : A Case Study,” Rochester Institute of Technology, 2010.

[2]       M. Dredze, J. Blitzer, and F. Pereira, “Reply Expectation Prediction for Email Management,” in 2nd Conference on Email and Anti-Spam, 2005, pp. 2–3.

[3]       F. K. Ozenc and S. D. Farnham, “Life ‘ Modes ’ in Social Media,” in CHI 2011, 2011, pp. 561–570.

[4]       M. Madden and S. Jones, “Networked Workers,” vol. 2008, no. 24 September. Pew Internet Project, Washington, DC, 2008.

[5]       O. Turel and A. Serenko, “Is mobile email addiction overlooked?,” Commun. ACM, vol. 53, no. 5, pp. 41–43, 2010.

[6]       Comscore Inc., “Emal Usage,” New York, N.Y., 2011.

Productivity: it ain’t about being faster

If you tell people you build productivity technology, they often think of assembly lines, conveyor belts, and stopwatches. Productivity means building things faster, right? Wrong. That view is so 20th century. Today, the real problem workers have is finding collaborative spaces to share information. Right now, our productivity tools often make even more work. Instead, we should build tools that emulate face-to-face interactions instead of assembly lines.

 

Ford_assembly_line_-_1913

 

Doing things faster was indeed a problem for early industrial times. Production was slow, inconsistent, and riddled with errors. Engineer F. W. Taylor’s “scientific management” emerged as a solution to this problem. Taylor, a probable obsessive compulsive, devoted his life to finding “one best way” to do everything. He also gave managers everywhere an excuse to control workers more tightly.

But today, we already have high-quality production. Systems like six sigma and lean production have standardized and stripped down production processes to the leanest, and most consistent elements. Innovation isn’t about “being faster,” but helping workers collaborate and share.

Why does collaboration matter more than ever?

Today’s products are complex. Rarely can only a single discipline design, build, and market a product. You need designers, engineers, and marketers to be truly successful. But this means they have to coordinate schedules, share information, and share their expertise. They need tools to store information, to build trust, to smooth cultural divides, and to protect heads-down time.

The Collaboration Penalty

Collaboration means working together, but also it ironically makes more work.

  1. Managing workflow: Who will do what, and when? This is especially difficult in heterogeneous, disparate, or physically distributed teams. Typical tasks include scheduling and task allocation.
  1. Creating shared information spaces: Creating, sharing, distributing, maintaining, and finding shared artifacts. Typical tasks include sharing via email or dropbox.
  1. Moving work products between collaborative spaces and individual spaces: Removing artifacts from shared spaces to complete an individual task, and replacing them into shared spaces. Typical tasks include checking in or out documents or code.

These three large buckets can overlap. For example, allocating tasks in a co-located team may mean simply writing down assignments on a white board. But in teams distributed by time or space will need to create a shared, digital artifact that summarizes these task allocations.

The irony is that as teams collaborate more, they create ever more shared digital artifacts, which increases the need for shared information spaces, and increases the cognitive load of evaluating whether a work product is ready to share.

collab

 

Strategies for the Collaboration Penalty

Our typical approaches for dealing with the collab penalty are no longer working. We have tried structured ontologies, or taxonomies. But it’s always so much faster to just talk with a person directly. That doesn’t scale. Informal ways are more powerful, and make less work.

Formal Ways to Pay Collaboration Penalty Informal Ways to Pay Collaboration Penalty
Standardization of procedures or inputsFormalized roles or responsibilitiesConceptual schema, such as taxonomies, ontologies, or other standard concepts “Bodywork” or physical proximityInformal communicationHigh-fidelity shared objects, like posters, prototypes, and whiteboardsIM, Skype, or real-time tech communication

Instead we should use things like handwritten notes — in digital form — to give more fidelity to our messages.

Human practices are far swifter and culturally adept than most technologies. This is the primary reason why work teams choose face-to-face strategies, even if they seem duplicative; informal strategies are higher in fidelity than structures or standardization.

Empathy in Action: the idea of Accompaniment

We talk a lot about “empathy” in the design world. But we don’t have a great deal of clarity about what empathy actually is, and what it costs us as both designers of products, or as human beings.

What is empathy? Nursing theorist Theresa Wiseman argues that empathy involves the following:

  1. To be able to see the world as others see it
  2. To be non-judgmental about what you see
  3. To understand another’s feelings
  4. To communicate your understanding of those feelings to others

This notion of empathy goes well beyond what most designers can legitimately claim to do, even with the best of their intentions. Empathy requires us to be alongside someone for the long term.

WP_20130611_022

When we talk about the failure to budget the time or money for user research, what we’re really talking about is the failure to prioritize empathy. We don’t need a large budget to see how others view the world. We don’t need a lot of time to be non-judgmental about that. We don’t need time or a separate budget to understand someone else’s feelings, or even to communicate those feelings to others.

But what we do need is the moral conviction that those things matter. It’s hard to consider that when we do not leave our Ivory Towers, or our industrial chic design studios. We need to be out in the world, alongside the people who use the products we design. How can we know how others see the world? How can we  understand those feelings, in genuine and open ways? We must accompany our customers through their journey. We must be with them.

Accompaniment

Dr. Paul Farmer is the founder of Partners in Health, the Haitian based NGO that has tried, for decades, to bring some measure of dignity to the lives of the Haitian people. Farmer describes his approach to helping the people as “accompaniment,” or the act of being there, along with them.

For Farmer, accompaniment is:

to go somewhere with him or her, to break bread together, to be present on a journey with a beginning and an end.

Farmer argues that to accompany someone is to be there

Accompaniment means committing to helping people with AIDS for the entirety of their lives, or to see someone with terminal cancer through to their death. It means:

Accompaniment is an elastic term, but not too elastic. It is not the same as a paid consultancy or a one-off project to help certain institutions or certain individuals for a little while.

You can see how hard it is for designers, particularly those who work in agencies for clients, to accompany their end customers throughout the design process. For this reason, I argue that user research is more akin to a lifelong mission than it is an entry in a project plan.

User Researchers as Accompagnateurs

I came across this notion of accompaniment in a recent book on social movements, written by a lifelone labor lawyer who has recently become an advocate for prisoners in Supermax prisons. He writes that he is still a lawyer. He doesn’t forget his expertise or leave it aside when he’s accompanying workers or prisoners. What he does do, however, is leaves aside his ego, and his desire to flex his expertise.

This is a lesson for designers, first, in that a designer who accompanies would never add aesthetic flourish just for the sake of it. No, she may hold aesthetic appeal as a priority personally, but would be willing to leave it aside if it were no benefit to her user.

Likewise, many researchers spend a great deal of time adding analytic flourishes to their research, but this pleases no one but themselves. It does nothing for the users, but may (in all honesty) simply make the researcher more analytically grand than her colleagues.

This is precisely what academic researchers are guilty of. This is why the Ivory Tower of academe has failed ordinary people. The human drama of any organization is about status attainment and status maintenance, and the university is no exception to this. But even in the private sector, user researchers are more akin to inspectors than accompagnateurs.

Anyone having seen the results of an overly “scientific” usability test will see this in action. Researchers are not immune to vanity, and they may use statistics or meaningless notions like “time on task” to demonstrate their rigor – without ever once accompanying the user on his journey.

Accompaniment and ethnography

This brings me to ethnography. Ethnographic research holds so much more potential for accompaniment than other forms of research because of its essential nature. Ethnography is, at its heart, about losing one’s own viewpoint and embracing the participant’s. It is about representing the journey that others take, not your own. It is about continually interrograting one’s own position in the world, to understand others.

If you sense a purpose higher than merely “building good technology,” you’re right. My mission as a researcher is to understand the experiences of everyday people, and to communicate those experiences to my engineering and design colleagues. The sociologist C. Wright Mills once argued that there is no such thing as “value-free” sociology, and I would extend that to say there is no such thing as “value-free” design.

All of us who fail to do research because there is “no budget,” or “no time” are incrementally eroding the idea that design is for others, not for us.

Identity management: the future of privacy?

The nature of privacy of is changing.  This should come as no surprise to anyone, since the pace of technological change has rapidly outpaced our existing social and legal norms.

Some have argued that privacy is now a right reserved only for the rich. This story of the Seattle City Light company reinforces that view. According to the Seattle Times, City Light’s contract with Brand.com to manage its image focused more on CEO Jorge Carrasco’s personal Google results than on the company itself.

Jorge Carrasco

Seattle City Light paid Brand.com $17,500 for the contract, which focused on expunging a particular Seattle Weekly article from Google search results.

In particular, the records show, Carrasco was aggravated by a negative Seattle Weekly article from 2008 that kept popping up in search results about him. As late as last month, Carrasco and a top aide were exploring whether they could get the piece expunged from Google entirely.

 

That original story focused on Carrasco’s high-handed management style, and argued that he “decimated employee morale,” and revealed his nickname as “Jorge Fiasco.”

On the surface, this story appears to be about misuse of public money for personal use. But digger deeper, what it is really about is two things.

  1. Identity management is work: I have found repeatedly in my research on productivity that individuals are increasingly tasked with achieving, monitoring, and policing their online images. This kind of work is increasing in scope and effort.
  2. Privacy is for the rich: because reputation management is increasing in its scope and effort required, privacy itself is now a job. Obviously in this context, those with means can better marshal resources to protect their identities. Individuals without time, resources or skill to manage their identities will have a more difficult time.

In short, we are seeing productivity increasingly involving improving one’s image. Tools like Social Sweeper are already offering resume “cleaning” services — to those who can afford it.

When will more traditional productivity tools offer the same services? And how much will they cost?