» Archive for September, 2010

The Xerox 914 Copier

Thursday, September 30th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

Every school child is aware of Gutenberg and his printing press.  But few know the name Chester Carlson, even though his impact on our lives as generators of information and creators of documents was just as great as the impact Gutenberg had on society some 500 years ago.

Imagine all the things we can copy now...

Chester Carlson invented the process of xerography (literally, “dry writing”) in Astoria, New York in 1938 after several years of experimentation and a lifelong interest in duplication.  He had been trying to create a means of duplicating a sheet of paper, such as a letter, but the only means of making copies at the time ranged from carbon paper, mimeographs, and photostats, none of which could take an existing document and copy it onto a new piece of paper without some intermediate steps or processes.

Carlson was successful by following a process outlined by the Hungarian physicist Pál Selényi that resulted in the world’s first xerographic copy.  It involved no chemical reaction and was a completely dry process.  John Dessauer, chief of research at the Haloid Corporation, read about Carlson’s invention and Carlson (along with his agent, Batelle Memorial Institute, a technology company that was headquartered in Columbus, Ohio), entered into a licensing agreement with Haloid.

Carlson joined Haloid in 1947 and the XeroX Copier Model A was born.  The technology, however, was difficult to use and other companies such as 3M and Kodak were already offering easy-to-use copying machines, although these machines used an inferior process and did not copy onto plain paper.  This put intense pressure on Haloid to perfect their machine.

The real breakthrough came with the Xerox 914, the world’s first modern photocopier.

Just as Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized man’s ability to spread information in geometric proportion, Carlson’s Xerox machine had a similar effect, largely, at least at first, on knowledge workers in offices.

Office life got a lot easier, in many respects, thanks to Carlson, but one could also look at the photocopy as a forerunner of the kind of Information Overload we now get from e-mail and other electronic messaging technologies.  A 1961 ad for the Xerox 914 put it succinctly, it “makes copies of anything… on ordinary paper… even pages in a book.”

Until the era of the laser printer arrived in the 1990s, creators of documents had two choices.  There were those few documents important enough to warrant the investment of time and energy in setting type and printing and the overwhelming majority of documents that didn’t, many of them of an ephemeral nature.  Carlson’s photocopier closed the gap between commercial printing and low-volume copying (which had been more likely to have been handled via carbon copies than anything else).   It also gave knowledge workers the ability to distribute anything and everything to as many people as they wished, just like e-mail does today, albeit with less speed and efficiency.

The photocopier opened the door for knowledge workers to send documents to multiple recipients but there were still some significant limitations compared to what is available today using e-mail.  The distribution of documents within a building or campus was relatively easy and done via intra-office mail or simply by dropping off the document in the recipient’s inbox.  For those people traveling or in a different office or company, documents were typically sent by mail and this meant that they would not arrive until several days later.

Fortunately, the world was not working at twenty-first century Internet speed at the time and the focus on immediacy and the requirement for instant gratification hadn’t yet manifested themselves in the office environment.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Death by Distraction

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

In 2006, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that driver inattention and distraction is a factor in 80% of automobile accidents and research continues to prove that attempts at multitasking while driving are dangerous.

Did you remember to press SEND?

Just as in the office, drivers apparently believe that they are capable of doing more than one thing at a time and that accidents caused by driver inattention must happen to someone else.

While deaths attributed to distracted driving fell by 6% in 2009 from the previous year (as part of an overall decline in traffic fatalities), distracted driving-relating crashes claimed 5,474 lives and injured 448,000 people in the United States in 2009, according to a report released by the U.S. Transportation Department in September 2010.  16% of fatal crashes in 2008 and 2009 involved reports of distracted driving, up from 10% in 2005.  However,the overall number of traffic accidents in the U.S. declined in 2009.

16% of all drivers younger than 20 (the age group with the highest proportion of distracted drivers) involved in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving.  Drivers between 30 and 39 were most likely to be involved in a fatal crash while distracted by a mobile phone, however.

“We are not talking about numbers, but about lives being broken and people being killed in crashes that were 100 percent preventable,” Ray LaHood, the Secretary of transportation, posted in his blog.  In a formal statement accompanying the report he stated “These numbers show that distracted driving remains an epidemic in America, and they are just the tip of the iceberg,”

“We’re hooked on our devices and we can’t put them down, even when it means jeopardizing our own safety and the safety of others,” LaHood added in his blog.  “And we have young people texting habitually long before they learn to drive who then can’t even imagine turning off their devices when they climb behind the wheel.”

“You see it every day: Drivers swerving in their lanes, stopping at green lights, running red ones or narrowly missing a pedestrian because they have their eyes and minds on their phones, not on the road,” wrote LaHood in an OpEd piece in the Orlando Sentinel.  “Yet people consistently assume that they can drive and text or talk at the same time.  The results are preventable accidents.”

Sometimes a person’s inattentiveness can have fatal results outside of a vehicle.  In the last few years, multiple lives have been lost at pools where the lifeguard on duty was texting instead of watching the pool.  Lifeguards are trained to scan their areas in ten-second cycles because a swimmer can drown in a mere 20 seconds.

According to Paul Atchley, associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, teenagers need to be texting to feel connected.  Despite knowing texting and driving is unsafe, they persist in the behavior.  And when they do, it changes how safe they perceive road conditions to be.  “Some of our latest work shows that when younger drivers choose to text, they perceive the driving conditions to be safer than they actually are.  In our research, drivers who initiate a text think freeway driving is equal to driving on a calm street, while drivers simply reading a text think freeway driving is attentionally demanding, such as driving in intense weather conditions.  Choosing to send a text changes one’s attitudes about the safety of the behavior and it may be one reason the behavior is so difficult to change.”

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

What We Can Learn From Learning

Thursday, September 16th, 2010 by Cody Burke

When it comes to learning, variety, it would appear, is the spice of life.

Tomorrow's class will be at the coffee shop

The way that people learn is a hotly debated topic and has created a cottage industry of learning aids, tutoring, and self-help books and material that claim to help us retain and internalize knowledge.

In the past few years however, some of our basic assumptions about learning have been called into question by researchers studying this area, and their work was the subject of a recent article by Benedict Carey in the New York Times.  It turns out that the common belief that having a single quiet study area aids in memorization and retention is false.  In fact, alternating the environment in which one studies forces the brain to make associations between the content and the environment, which aids in memory recall.

This will not be news to knowledge workers that take regular advantage of the mobility options technology offers.   Working from coffee shops, libraries, and airport lounges sometimes yields creative solutions to problems, new revelations, and insights from chance encounters with fellow nomads or the odd well-read barista.  Working from the same cubicle day-in-and-day-out not only can be soul destroying, but according to studies, is actually an impediment to maximizing our brain’s capabilities to learn.

Another learning myth examined by researchers is “blocking”, or the practice of focusing on one topic in large blocks of time to learn more effectively.  It turns out that the opposite is true; interleaving study topics leads to better test results than studying one topic at a time.  Interestingly, according to a study at the University of South Florida, when a task is learned by studying multiple topics one-at-a-time in sequence, performance in practice sessions worsens, but improves for the final testing.  This happens because the brain is forced to make associations between the problem and the method needed to solve it.  During practice sessions, while still learning, performance dips, but by the time testing comes around, the knowledge has solidified.  This is distinct from multitasking in that while interleaving, focus is 100% on the task at hand for a set time limit, and then the task is changed completely.

For knowledge workers, the lesson is that, for long term projects (specifically those that do not depend on performance during the learning phase), it is preferable to undertake interleaving with other tasks to strengthen the associations among different kinds of problems and the methods for solving them.

Based on the proven advantages of alternating locations and tasks, it is not hard to imagine a knowledge worker hopping between coffee shops, switching tasks as he flits among lattes and macchiatos (but guarding against multitasking).  Ultimately, he might outperform his Dilbertian cubicle dwelling counterpart.  While that example might be a bit extreme, there are clear benefits to rotating locations and tasks while working.

Happily for knowledge workers, a strategy of mobility and interleaving also happens to dovetail with the trends we see in an increasing mobile workforce.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Google Instant: New Interface, Same Old Results

Thursday, September 9th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

Google made a big splash today with the launch of Google Instant, a somewhat glitzy update to the current Google search interface.  The question that needs to be asked, however, is whether the new functionality actually makes for a better search tool.

Add water. Search.

Speaking at the launch, Sergey Brin commented without a trace of irony that “[W]e want to make Google the third half of your brain.”  Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president for search products and user experience, noted that “[T]here’s even a psychic element to it.”

Google Instant starts to show search results as one types.  In some respects, Google Instant appears to know what to type before one types it (although this in itself is not a new feature, Google has had a “type ahead” suggestion option for some time).

As one starts to type, results appear.  For example, in my test, using the search query “BMW 335d review,” when I typed the letter “b,” “bank of america” and “best buy” appeared as choices and search results for Bank of America appeared below.  Once I added the letter “m” the system seemed to anticipate I was going to type “bmw” and results for BMW appeared.

In some cases, the correct or best answer or content appears before one finishes typing.  Indeed, by the time I had finished typing “bmw 335d,” the word “review” appeared in grey and the appropriate results were immediately below the search bar.

The order of word entry in a multi-word search query does not seem to influence the final result but the interim results displayed as the entry is formulated will vary, of course.

An initial review of Google Instant does indicate that the new feature improves the user experience; however, while it may make searching faster, Google Instant does little if anything to provide better search results.  What it does do is provide “search-before-you-type”, by conducting searches and displaying results based on the most likely word combinations, determined as one types.  This improves the user’s ability to refine a search without hitting enter, so one can see if a mistake in wording occurred, or if one needs to add terms to narrow the search parameters.

Google has had the “type ahead” feature that completes the search query for quite a while now, and the basic mechanics that dictate suggested words appear unchanged.  The interface has been tweaked, so instead of simply having the suggestions appear below the query in a drop down menu, the most likely one appears in light grey text, completing the query.  Users can select that text if it fits their search, or use the arrow keys to select the suggestions from the drop down list that changes as the word is being typed.

The real upgrade to the user interface is the display of instant search results that appear under the search box.  These suggestions can serve to guide the knowledge worker into making a more precise search query (i.e. formulate the search query better) and narrow in on the exact result that is sought.

According to Google, the average search query takes nine seconds to type and Google Instant can cut that down by two to five seconds.  Put differently, for the 65 million knowledge workers in the U.S., if each uses Google twenty times per day for a search, each knowledge worker would save 70 seconds but that would add up to 1,263,889 man hours per day that Google Instant would be saving.

Despite the potential time savings, the main problems with search are not really addressed in this update.  One of the fundamental problems with search is that a query returns results and not answers.  Indeed in many cases, the results page only contributes to the problem of Information Overload as the knowledge worker still has to sift through the results to find what may or may not be the “right” answer.

Although a user can use the instant results to narrow down a search more quickly by not having to hit enter and refresh the results manually, the underlying search process has not changed, so our concerns regarding Google’s search engine remains the same.

Ultimately, the new feature is a cosmetic upgrade that will likely be very popular and will make the search experience appear to be better and less painful.  Behind the scenes however, the same old problems remain.  The way search tools function today – even with Google Instant on the scene –  serves to exacerbate the problem of Information Overload and does little to alleviate the problem.  It is a useful evolution of the user interface, but it does not go any deeper than that.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

Mark Your Calendars – Information Overload Awareness Day 2010

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

“What can we do to call more attention to the problem of Information Overload?” is a question I still hear regularly.   Last year we came up with an answer:  participate in Information Overload Awareness Day, a new workplace observance that calls attention to the problem of information overload and how it impacts both individuals and organizations.

Here's how we solve the problem...

Over 350 people from 30 countries did exactly that.

This year, Information Overload Awareness Day falls on October 20.

We are holding an online event that will do a deep dive into different ways that Information Overload is adversely impacting knowledge work and knowledge workers while also spotlighting possible solutions to help managers and policymakers cope with loss of productivity.

The event features a variety of speakers including Dan Holshouse of George Washington University, who is the former Chief Knowledge Officer at Xerox, Max Christoph, the Managing Director at Morgan Stanley, who has been leading the charge against Information Overload there, Oliver Brdiczka, a researcher at Xerox PARC studying the problem, Dan Rasmus, Microsoft’s former director of business insights, and Nathan Zeldes, president of the Information Overload Research Group and the former executive in charge of addressing the problem at Intel.  (I’ll be there too, of course.)

While a few people put their heads in the sand and say this is not a real problem, the costs are quite real and the problem is only going to get worse.  By 2012, the typical knowledge worker will receive hundreds of messages each day via e-mail, IM, text, and social networks.

Simply put, companies need to focus on what can be done to lessen Information Overload’s impact right now.  We’ll look at the latest research and solutions and cover areas including managing e-mail, calculating Information Overload exposure, improving search, and managing content, just to name a few.

The cost of the event is $50; attendees who promise not to multitask (i.e. IM, e-mail, or text) during the event will receive a 50% discount.

Companies are invited to sponsor Information Overload Awareness Day by enrolling as Designated Sites.  This allows all of their employees to attend at no charge and demonstrates their commitment to helping solve the problem.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.