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Tech Industry

Information overload and its discontents

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper asks whether the information technology industry will ever get serious about making things easier to use.

Ask 100 people in Silicon Valley whether technology will revolutionize the way we work in the year 2014, and you'll find that most folks are true believers.

Ups and downs aside, technology has already made business enormously more productive in the last 10 years than in any similar period in postwar history, so why shouldn't the past also be prologue?

The available statistical evidence seemingly makes a strong case. U.S. labor productivity soared from 1995 through the first three quarters of 2002 precisely because of a major investment in information technology. And despite expectations of a slight falloff in the years ahead, productivity growth is still expected to continue to range between 2 percent and 2.8 percent for the foreseeable future, according to a recent study from think tank Rand.

But is IT really up to the task?

Easily overlooked is the fact that the boom was a one-off event. The unique combination of the Year 2000 bug buildup, the Internet explosion and the telecommunications bubble is not likely to repeat during our lifetime.

As it is, folks can only handle a fraction of the functions getting built into hardware and software.
The other reason for pause is the law of diminishing returns. You can buy the latest, greatest computer on the market, but people still only have a limited amount of time to learn everything in the handbook. As it is, folks can only handle a fraction of the functions getting built into hardware and software.

That has not stopped the computer industry from stuffing as many bells and whistles as modern engineering will allow into its new products. My question is: How much more "productive" can we reasonably become, when most tools are still too difficult to fully master?

I still don't know half of the things I might do with Microsoft Word--even after using the product nearly every workday. But who has the time? Maybe I'm the dopey exception, but it seems to me that lots of other people are also on the edge of information overload.

"That's not the right way to look at it," says Sheldon Laube, the director of information and technology at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Laube, one of the first big corporate IT users to recognize the potential of Lotus Notes, argues that users and suppliers have fed off each other during the product creation cycle to create what we ask for.

"Vendors are adding new features to products, because users have increasing and diverse demands," he says. "The number of people using Microsoft Word is in the tens (of) millions. Across those millions of people, different functions may be getting used.

The tough part is adding more functionality without also adding more complexity.
It's great to have more functionality over time. The challenge is to make the technology more accessible to people."

Maybe it's just a matter of perspective. Undoubtedly, computers are a lot easier to use today than they were 20 years ago. And if you talk to users, there's always going to be a gazillion new features they want to see. Hence the added pressure on suppliers to do their customers' bidding. The tough part is adding more functionality without also adding more complexity.

That's where the gauntlet gets thrown down, but user interface designers have taken the easy way out, adopting the philosophy of making the common functions easy at the expense of making everything else harder.

"The one thing that made (Lotus) Notes attractive was the simple idea that everybody could be a database designer," Laube recalls. "Any schnook could do it--and that, for me, was unbelievably powerful."

Then, three years ago, when Laube downloaded a new copy of Notes, "it was so complex, I couldn't figure it out."

Sigh.

You don't log onto your television or boot up your phone. Is it entirely unreasonable to believe that people should be able to use technology tools with similar ease? The IT industry has more pressing concerns on its mind these days, but this item demands a place high on the agenda--and soon.

To be continued.