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Java Desktop: The Usability Paradox

How Much Progress Has There Been Since the 1950s and LEO?

The world's first office computer, known as LEO, was created in the 1950s by Lyons, the British teashop giant. Its aim was to replace the thousands of clerks who did the billing, invoicing, and stocktaking, and also tracked the supply and demand of sticky buns and cups of tea that the public were consuming. Its success lay not in the technology it employed, but because it made the company more efficient by streamlining what was previously a very labor-intensive business process. It benefited Lyons, which cut costs and had more control of corporate information, and it also benefited the thirsty public who had enough cakes, sandwiches, and cups of tea to see them through their seaside weekends, rain or shine.

In much the same way that early machines automated tasks such as harvesting crops or weaving cotton, LEO was successful because it was more than just an electronic filing cabinet - it had integrated itself into the DNA of the corporation and freed up employees from manual labor.

The 1960s to 1990s was not such a cakewalk for IT, however, and the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow summarized this period: "We see computers everywhere except in the productivity statistics." He was basing his observation on the statistic that while IT spending grew in every decade since the 1960s, productivity growth slowed. In the 1990s the amount of money spent on new computer hardware alone was over $750 billion, and since none of this seemed to make companies more efficient, the expression - The Productivity Paradox - was coined. Despite all the money that was being spent, there was no real return on investment.

Solow did the industry a disservice as he had painted a picture of inefficiency. What has occurred since is that many corporations view IT not as an opportunity to create revenue, but as an overhead that departments have to incur and as such it should be minimized.

Such an attitude worries me deeply as the line between saving costs for the business and providing a poor customer experience is a thin one. Two examples of places where this line is wafer-thin are voice response systems and browser apps that front end legacy applications.

Anyone who has telephoned a company to deal with a request and had to navigate touch-tone options in vain knows the frustration and poor service it provides. Most companies spend a lot of money on their office's reception area; plush furniture, nice lighting, and welcoming smiles greet customers as they walk into the business. A voice response system, however, is the virtual equivalent of a company's reception area as it creates the first impression and is the waiting lounge until you can see the person you've called to visit. While companies implement cost savings by outsourcing help desks to far-flung time zones and attempting to put their customers many touch-tone menus away from the real people left on their help-desk support staff, they are doing the equivalent of decorating the entrance hall to their corporate offices with uncomfortable chairs, shabby carpets, and impersonal service.

The Web has had a phenomenal effect on companies and how they can interact with their customers, but for many industries I fear that all that has occurred is they have front ended their batch systems and exposed inherent business weaknesses and flaws. Most of the computing universe runs on batch systems that were conceived and built in the last millennium, where nightly jobs compute numbers, move data, send messages, and print reports. Front ending this with a browser so customers can interact with their data is more efficient both for the company and the user; however, if it suffers from inherent legacy business inefficiencies, then it's no more than lipstick on a mainframe. A colleague of mine suffered this recently when on Friday they cancelled a payment that was due to be made the following Monday, only to find it had occurred anyway. The final explanation given was that three days notice was required because Monday's transactions were processed over the weekend and the job to do this started on Friday night. Listening to the story I had visions of an IT department in a deep subbasement somewhere with armies of oompah loompahs stoking a Heath Robinson Series II computer with currant buns while they drank cups of lukewarm tea.

Is the problem that IT is forever suffering from the poor return on investment that they suffered in the latter half of the last century? That it will forever be viewed as a cost center where only the minimum functionality is enough rather than a revenue-generating opportunity? Successful e-businesses understand that IT is the blood supply of their company and invest hugely in being able to deal with a world where customers exist in, travel to, and relocate around all corners of the globe and quality service must be provided 24 hours a day. For companies whose boardroom goal is to report quarterly results that boost shareholder value based on profit and loss figures, is the only way to do this to shave overhead and cut costs and investment? To become more productive and shake Solow's aphorism, are IT departments focused on keeping the economists and accountants happy, while delivering a poor usability experience for customers and hurting the company where it matters most - the satisfaction of their users?

More Stories By Joe Winchester

Joe Winchester, Editor-in-Chief of Java Developer's Journal, was formerly JDJ's longtime Desktop Technologies Editor and is a software developer working on development tools for IBM in Hursley, UK.

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Most Recent Comments
Andrew Wolfe 11/08/05 02:41:56 PM EST

The key issue with low ROI of computing, especially in terms of productivity, is essentially that too much of the investment was in MS Windows _personal_ computing and too little in real collaboration. Corporations purchased boatloads of PCs and on which people mainly used standalone personal applications that were never integrated into any business process except by sneakernet. Workflow around Microsoft Word or Excel is ludicrous, but that's what a business really needs. Most of the "wow" spreadsheets and "cool" presentations were squandering the time of the so-called "knowledge workers" who in reality needed INTEGRATED business intelligence and data access.

As a Mac user, my biggest laugh of the 1990's was watching Windows users endlessly gripe about poor performance of their latest PC while Mac users like myself were contentedly using three-year-old applications on six-year-old machines. The problem was not system performance -- it was that these machines were not getting work done and these people's frustration was woefully misdirected.

PCs became another office-worker perk instead of an integrated part of business operations. And the FUD was that all your competitors were getting good value from PCs so you better get PCs too. And your knowledge workers would be unhappy if they couldn't have a PC on their desk to play Solitaire -- er, I mean, to run data analysis spreadsheets (with poor quality snapshots of erratically derived corporate data).

So in my opinion, the paradox only LOOKS like usability. The problem was that the whole personal-computer mantra was never oriented towards corporate business processes. It doesn't matter how usable Excel is -- if you leave your knowledge workers cut off from live access to corporate data, they might as well be playing Solitaire for all the good it's doing.

Java Developer's Journal News Desk 11/07/05 01:10:31 PM EST

The world's first office computer, known as LEO, was created in the 1950s by Lyons, the British teashop giant. Its aim was to replace the thousands of clerks who did the billing, invoicing, and stocktaking, and also tracked the supply and demand of sticky buns and cups of tea that the public were consuming. Its success lay not in the technology it employed, but because it made the company more efficient by streamlining what was previously a very labor-intensive business process. It benefited Lyons, which cut costs and had more control of corporate information, and it also benefited the thirsty public who had enough cakes, sandwiches, and cups of tea to see them through their seaside weekends, rain or shine.

CallCenters 11/04/05 06:12:03 PM EST

]]]] While companies implement cost savings by outsourcing help desks to far-flung time zones and attempting to put their customers many touch-tone menus away from the real people left on their help-desk support staff, they are doing the equivalent of decorating the entrance hall to their corporate offices with uncomfortable chairs, shabby carpets, and impersonal service. [[[[

Well put. Hear, hear.