Why computers can't kill Post-its
Office workers are like electricity: When they want to get something done, they follow the path of least resistance.
Which is why, say researchers at MIT, the Post-it note continues to flourish on every surface of the contemporary office, despite all those expensive computers ready and willing to help.
David Karger helps lead a group at MIT exploring the way people work with computers. A recent paper from his team chronicled the attraction of "information scraps" like Post-Its, which, says Karger, are actually near-perfect data base tools. They're accessible and easy to use, and they take advantage of the brain's facility to remember an object's location in the three-dimensional world.
All goals, he adds, to which a well-designed computer program should aspire. "A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to figure out cool new things for computers to do," Karger says. "What's more interesting to me is figuring out how to get the computer out of the way."
Along with M.C. Schraefel of the University of Southampton, Karger investigates the use of "personal information" for MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. In a recent study of how office workers use Post-it notes and the like, graduate students Michael Bernstein and Max Van Kleek collected more than 500 such notes from more than two dozen office workers. They studied the scribblings — some of them barely legible — and came up with a model of "the information-scrap life cycle."
The biggest single category of notes, they reported, were to-do lists, which made up a fifth of the total. Meeting notes, contact information and Web addresses were also popular. A dozen of the notes contained log-in and password data.
There were several dozen scraps that fit into no particular category. One person drew a network diagram on a scrap. Another made salary calculations, and one made a list of "words to spell-check." Another data category was "lyrics to songs."
The study found that "capture speed" was the main reason a worker might choose a Post-it note over a computer program, even those programs specifically designed for these sorts of jottings.
"Even seemingly minor difficulties or annoyances with tools could deter use of a tool," the study said. It noted that one volunteer subject "would write notes on Post-its and stick them to his cellular phone to transfer into Outlook later rather than enter the data directly into his smart phone, even though the phone supported note synchronization.
"When asked why not enter the note digitally in the first place, he responded, 'Starting in Outlook forces me to make a type assignment, assign a category, set a deadline, and more; that takes too much work!' Similarly, paper notebooks were often chosen instead of laptops because they required no time to boot up."
The findings of the MIT study echo those performed by other students of office rituals; there are an estimated several hundred ethnographers in the country looking at the specific ways that workers handle "personal information," like calendars and contact information.
These researchers tend to approach these concerns in their own way. A stereotypical computer programmer dreams up a piece of software and insists that humans work by its rules. In contrast, office ethnographers tend to assume that people know what they are doing. So if a computer program isn't being used as intended, it's the program's fault, not the human's.
Tasks on to-do lists less likely to be completed
For example, Victoria Bellotti with the Palo Alto Research Center, a Xerox subsidiary, has studied to-do lists in connection with a federal DARPA grant. She found that if a task was put on a to-do list, it was less likely to get done, at least in the first week, but only because office workers were busy on the deadlines that were so obvious they didn't need to be written down.
Bellotti said the best office tools have many "affordances," a word used by researchers for an attribute of a tool that corresponds to something about human beings. Post-it notes, she said, have multiple affordances, such as the ability to be stuck to a door where someone coming into a room can easily see them.
Karger said his group isn't bothered in the least that millions of people still use Post-it notes, but thinks they might be tempted to dial back on the yellow squares if computer programs were designed better. A good program, he said, would have none of the fields and forms common to the genre, and would instead allow someone to easily type or paste in anything they wanted. This design criteria has been elevated by his study group into something of a mantra: "No interfaces."
One stab at such a program is list.it, just released by Karger and his students. To the casual observer, the program looks like any of the legion of notepad programs on the market already — some of which are built into the Windows and Macintosh operating system.
Karger said, though, that list.it was written with the lessons learned from the Post-it study in mind, including the need for the program to be started with absolute minimal effort.
List.it requires the latest version of the Firefox Web browser. Karger says he considers the program more of a research project than a finished product. It's free for the taking, though users are strongly encouraged to send in their reactions to the code after spending time with it. You can even write the comments on a Post-it and fax them in.