Technology Frustrations: Or, Make it Better Now, Please!

computer monitor clip artWhew!  The Year to Productivity course is done, and I hope you enjoyed it.  Our approach to the blog this year is a little more spontaneous as each of us have topics we are interesting in exploring further.   For example, I am going to look into whether there are productivity tools for specific academic disciplines… it may not work out, so I hope you will join in with me and share tools you have found that fit the bill. Meanwhile, I know that I often get so caught up in the whizbang golly-gee-whizzness of technology and forget the frustrations – until the next time a computer gremlin hauls off and whacks me, stopping me from getting things done.  I know I’m not the only one, either.  For proof, see Stephen Shankland’s article Nine Tech Torments I’d Like to See Fixed in 2014.  His are mostly different from mine, but I have plenty of my own, and they seem like they ought to be fixable for the most part.

As a librarian, I use a lot of databases and see a lot of search engines.  They all have different features, and so I know what a powerful search engine can do.  Yet I’m constantly faced with searches that do a terrible horrible job.  For example (dare I name names?  YES), Ebrary allows librarians to set up alerts for ebooks matching specific searches.  The search engine to set up the alerts, though, is so bad it produces laughably bad results, meaning that when I’m busy I ignore the alerts and when I have time I have to wade through a lot of dross to find the gold. Even Google doesn’t  always pop the most relevant results to the top.  I often use Duck Duck Go instead, especially when looking for an organization’s official site, which Duck Duck Go labels with a helpful “Official Site” icon.  It isn’t my tool of choice all the time, as Duck Duck Go doesn’t index as many pages as Google.

When I look at the state of commercial search engines, I despair.  The most recent example was looking for a long-handled lotion applicator.  First looked at Rite Aid, where I got over 1000 results, of which the first 200 or so were not at all applicable and included such interesting items as lots and lots of lotions, some eye-liners and a rake???!!!!  Next I tried Walmart, where I got 5 results none of which were applicable at all.  Did find something at Amazon that I could use, yet I have over the years had plenty of woeful encounters with Amazon too.  A search for a specific cell phone, for example, brings up all of the accessories for that phone, then other cell phones.  The item itself does not very often come to the top, or even the first page, of results.  Some of the companies using these searches are business leaders, and they’ve been working on their online stores for years now.  Do database designers never learn from other designers?  Is relevance ranking such a rare concept?  Would it be asking to much to have the accessories as a separate grouped link at the top of the results?

Netflix is another product that usually I like, but I think the search engine could be better.  My worst experience with it is trying to find the old Doctor Who episodes.  I suspect the BBC doesn’t make it easy for them, as some of the episodes are available streaming only, some DVD only, and it is unpredictable which is which and very hard for a user to figure out what’s available and what order they need to be watched (secret tip for Whovians – Wikipedia rules!).  And some episodes don’t come up in a search of Netflix, yet the Wikipedia article says they are available, which leads me to think it is a problem with the Netflix search engine.

My other major technology gripe is with the form factor.  It is delightful to be able to use the same services/programs/apps on equipment no matter the size of the device you are working on.  For example, I use regularly a desktop computer at work, a laptop at home, a 10 inch tablet at home, and a Nook HD (7 inches) and mobile phone (Nexus 5, 5 inches) that roam with me.  That’s two operating systems (currently Windows 7 and Android). So I use Evernote on all of these devices.  It is wonderful to have my notes available on all these platforms.   They sync well.  They’re organized as well as I want them to be.  I can search them.  But editing notes can be a nightmare when you go from one form to another.    Such a simple thing as adding a horizontal rule, which I really like for organizing a note, is not available in the Android versions, and if it is, I don’t know how to find it… and if Evernote offers help on such questions I haven’t found that either.

Have not tried the Evernote forums, yet, but that reminds me of another search engine nightmare, online forums.   They can have thousands of threads, with millions of posts, and they also have extremely bad search engines (hmmm, that could be the premise for a horror movie that would win lots of Razzies – the threads, The Threads, they are coming to get you!).

There are good reasons for some of these frustrations.  Sometimes people who make a technology available aren’t aware of what competitors are doing, or the best feature(s) may be patented.  Nor can one easily offer the same features in a smaller form. Yet there could be much better solutions and in time, there probably will be.

One of the difficulties is that new technologies tend to lead one to expect more and more improvements.  That’s natural.  We tend to forget, I think, just how new a lot of this technology is.  The iPhone, for example, just celebrated its seventh birthday.  While a generation in computers seems to happen in nanoseconds, just think about that in real historical terms.  The smartphone is seven years old.  While tablet computers appeared briefly earlier and didn’t catch on, tablets have only been popular for 3-4 years.

Wikipidia describes a disruptive innovation as “… an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.”  The biggest disruptive innovation in the Western World was the printing press, until the Industrial Revolution.  Now disruptive innovations, generally centered around computer networks, are happening more and more frequently.  Just think of the occupations that are undergoing massive upheaval now – including, in the information world, publishing, and journalism.  Universities and libraries are at the beginning of a wave of transformation.  Some of it is exciting, some of it is terrifying – much like riding the crest of an enormous wave.

It is the big ideas that get talked about in the discussion of new and changing technologies, though, and often it is the fine details of making technologies more usable that get lost – such as making a search engine more user friendly and making an application work similarly across platforms.  Here’s to those in the trenches who are working on such things, and a heartfelt plea to make it better sooner.  ;-).  And lots of companies do well overall… when one is dealing with as many features as software provides, which have to operate seamlessly and have to be created for a proliferating number of operating systems, and/or browsers, etc., it is amazing that any of it ever works.  As the old saying goes, it isn’t amazing that the bear dances well, but that it dances at all.

Finally, I can’t resist posting again the two Corning “A Day Made of Glass” videos.  I want to live in that world now!

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