Do it yourself..

We often observe that something that needed help by an employee is now done by ourselves. Our automobile-affine friends have to fill in gasoline themselves since the seventies in Germany and now even the payment is often done with cards, so that there is no human on site, but only video surveillance, I assume. In Italy it is hard to buy a map, because the shops that usually sell them in gas stations have become very rare and other shops do not sell maps either. This maybe another „do it yourself“, because we use our phone as a map and the printed map has become obsolete or at least less important. Depending on the roaming costs this can be more expensive, but it is there and helps us find where we are on the map and even finding our way…

In some shops we can scan the stuff that we bought ourselves. In some shops in England this is actually the only way that is available. For small purchases I do that myself, because waiting in the line takes longer, but for a larger number of items I would think that the professional is still faster, if the lines are not excessively long. Btw. Aldi, which is a company that runs their shops very efficiently and offers good prices in turn does not seen to use this at all, but they rather trained their employees to be efficient when scanning and to do other work in the shop when there are less people queuing.

Some countries have abolished all the post offices or at least the majority of them, but the service is covered by other shops that are there for something else and cover the postal service by their employees. This helps retaining some presence in thinly populated areas, but it becomes a problem for non trivial requests. They exist in the postal service and it becomes painful when the employees do not have the skills to help. We start using our phone and try to find it out ourselves, which may or may not help.

Airports and airlines encourage to do the check-in via app or internet, which can be a good thing because dealing with this process is annoying, but still faster than waiting in the line. The question remains why so few counters are open.. Baggage drop can also be automated, which works well with standard sized luggage. If we have a kg too much, a human might let us get away with it, but I doubt that a machine is responsive to a smile and a short explanation, if not accompanied by payment. And „oversize“ luggage will always require assistance.

A similar issue arises with railroad tickets. The majority of them can be bought via internet, the app or the vending machine. This has been somewhat improved. In Germany it is possible to find a phone number and reach a human for more difficult tickets. Then we just need to identify with a credit card or with a rail pass on any vending machine to print the tickets, even tickets which we would never have been able to buy ourselves on the vending machine, either because they do not appear in the menus, or because they are too hard to find. Or because the risk of buying a more expensive ticket is too big. In Switzerland a mechanism that was meant primarily for handicapped people who are buying there tickets allows for a VoIP-connection from the vending machine to a call center or to call a number, to get help for the buying process. This is primarily for helping to actually use the machine, which can be useful or at least eliminate some of the panic from situations where we need to get the ticket before our train leaves, if the time is not too short (German Blog about this on the official blog of the SBB). I would like to add that the Swiss ticket vending machines are more user friendly. Now of course we are encouraged to move away from the vending machine and to use the mobile app or print the tickets via the internet. This lets us do work ourselves that was formerly done by an employee, but maybe still saves us time in most of the cases.

When there is still a ticket office with professional railroad employees within reach, this can be ok, but it can become hard if the ticket vending office is run by another shop with their employees like some post office replacements or if there is no human at all within reach. Buying the ticket on the train has become more difficult to impossible as well.

But some of us have maybe heard that in the old days a phone call implied calling some operator and having the operator connect the phone call. This was still available as an option not too many years ago, at least in the time before the mobile phones came up. And it was actually used in the United States, mostly to create calls that were charged to the callee instead of the caller. Usually just dialing the number or even using it from the phones address book is much more convenient than talking to the operator.

So doing things ourselves can be a win-win situation, if the assistence we can get is good enough or if businesses lets us profit from their efficiency gain in some reasonable way. But in any more sophisticated transaction we either loose endless time to figure out how to do them or we absolutely need a human to help us. What is a sophisticated transaction may change with the time. We can learn things and software can become better.

Today quite often even things like login or registration sometimes are difficult. An example across which I came a few times are „master sites“ and afiliated sites, like „SwissPass“ and the Swiss Federal Railroad (SBB) or „Miles and More“ and the site of an airline within the system. This allows for a login via the master site, but also for a direct login bypassing the master site, where we do not necessarily have an account. Getting this right technically and UX-wise is a challenge. But the concepts exist. Yes, it is non-trivial identity management.

And quite often sites just do not work. I tried to register on some sites and gave up. It is necessary to enter 8 pieces of information. If one of them is wrong, the other 7 need to be entered again. Ok, they come from auto completion of the browser, maybe. Phone numbers and dates fields often do not work well. Date fields should always accept ISO-format like „2016-07-16“ besides a date format that is commonly used in the locale of the user, like „16.07.2016“ in Germany and Switzerland (though the official format is ISO). This is ugly, but can be handled, if the desired format is mentioned in the form. Often a calendar widget is useful, because it helps us know the weekday, but in case of the birth date we rarely need it for that reason. The phone number is very often a problem. There are so many variants to this, but actually starting with a „+“ and separating groups of digits with spaces should at least work. That is another issue. Quite a few forms fail because of leading or trailing spaces, which we hardly see and which we sometime get into the form when using copy+paste.

I remember the nightmare of installing Oracle 10-15 years ago. There was a „comfortable“ installer, written in Java (Java 1.1). Everything worked fine and then the installer failed with some red alarm, without any obvious way out, other than do it once again. Of course professional Oracle admins never used this installer and got it right within a day. But leaving the user in a „nightmare“ situation without any visible way out of this is a clear UX anti pattern. Even if I am no way a UX specialist but just an ordinary user I can tell.

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Bring your own Device

This issue is quite controversial and it applies to laptops, tablets and smart phones.
Usually the „bringing“ is not really an issue, you can have anything in your bags and connect it via the mobile phone network as long as it does not absorb the working time.
But usually this implies a bit more.
There are some advantages in having company emails and calendar on a smart phone. This is convenient and useful. But there are some security concerns that should be taken serious. How is the calendar and the emails accessed? How confidential are the emails? Do they pass through servers that we do not trust? What happens, if a phone gets lost?
This is an area, where security concerns are often not taken too serious, because it is cool for top manager to have such devices. And they can just override any worries and concerns, if they like.
This can be compensated by being more restrictive in other areas. 😉
Anyway, the questions should be answered. In addition, the personal preferences for a certain type of phone are very strong. So the phone provided by the company might not be the one that the employee prefers, so there is a big desire to use the own phone or one that is similar to the own phone, which depends on the question of who pays the bills, how much of private telephony is allowed on the company phone and if there are work related calls to abusive times.
Generally the desirable path is to accept this and to find ways to make this secure.

The other issue is about the computer we work with. For some kind of jobs it is clear that the computer of the company is used, for example when selling railroad tickets or working in the post office or in a bank serving customers.

It shows that more creative people and more IT-oriented people like to have more control on the computer they work with.
We like to have hardware that is powerful enough to do the job. We like to be able to install software that helps us do our job. We like to use the OS and the software that we are skilled with. Sometimes it is already useful to be able to install this on the company computer or in a virtual computer within the company computer. Does the company allow this? It should, with some reasonable guidelines.

Some companies allow their employees to use their own laptops instead. They might give some money to pay for this and expect a certain level of equipment for that. Or just allow the employees to buy a laptop with their own money and use it instead of the company computer. They will do so and happily spend the money, even though it is wrong and the company should pay it. But the pain of spending some of the own money is for many people less than the pain of having to use crappy company equipment.

This rises the question of the network drive Q:, the outlook, MS-Word, MS-Excel,…
Actually this is not so much an issue, at least for the group we are talking here. Or becoming less of an issue.
Drive Q: can quite well be accessed from Linux, if the company policies allow it. But actually modern working patterns do not need this any more.
We can use a Wiki, like MediaWiki or Confluence for documentation. This is actually a bit better in many cases and I would see a trend in this direction, at least for IT-oriented teams.
Office-Formats and Email are more and more providing Web-Applications that can be used to work with them on Linux, for example. And MS-Office is already available for Linux, at least for Android, which is a Linux Variant. It might or might not come for Desktop Linux. LibreOffice is most of the time a useful replacement. Maybe better, maybe almost as good, depending on perspective… And there is always the possibility to have a virtual computer running MS-Windows for the absolutely mandatory MS-Windows-programs, if they actually exist. Such an image could be provided and maintained by the company instead of a company computer.

It is better to let the people work. To allow them to use useful tools. To pay them for bringing their own laptop or to allow them to install what they want on the company laptop. I have seen people who quit their job because of issues like this. The whole expensive MS-Windows-oriented universe that has been built in companies for a lot of money proves to be obsolete in some areas. A Wiki, a source code repository, … these things can be accessed over the internet using ssh or https. They can be hosted by third parties, if we trust the third party. Or they can be hosted by the company itself. Some companies work with distributed teams…

It is of course important to figure out a good security policy that allows working with „own“ devices and still provide a sufficient level of security. Maybe we just have to get used to other ways of working and to learn how to solve the problems that they bring us. In the end of the day we will see which companies are more successful. It depends on many factors, but the ability to provide a innovative and powerful IT and to have good people working there and actually getting stuff done is often an important factor.

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