Commentary on Jakob Nielsen's Alertbox, March 29, 2004:

Productivity in the Service Economy
Yes, it is possible for white-collar workers to work smarter and become more productive. While intranet usability provides substantial initial gains, workflow usability can go much further and will save millions of jobs.

Jay: Give a kid a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail. Give Jakob Nielsen a chance to improve workflow, and it looks like a usability issue.

Example: Productivity Gains in Data Analysis

A personal example of productivity problems in the service sector: it's always going to take me a full day's work to lead a one-day seminar. Can't speed that one up.

Jay: Huh? Of course you can speed that up. Sandwich the face-to-face workshop between material and exercises delivered by the web. It's called eLearning.

That said, the overwhelming majority of the effort required to produce a seminar lies in preparation, not delivery. I recently improved productivity for my current series of usability seminars by an estimated 17%, not by speaking faster, but by proactively accommodating changes in participants' registration behavior.

I did this by building a non-linear multiple regression model of the final registration numbers based on statistical analyses of the sign-up dates for 7,591 people who've attended my conferences over the last few years. This analysis estimated that our final audience would be twice as big as the room capacity in Melbourne, which was our only scheduled stop in Australia. To accommodate the increased demand, I added a series of seminars in Sydney.

Jay: I know lots of people in the seminar business; every one of them has some sort of model to predict attendance. What Jakob identifies as a 17% productivity gain, they call common sense. The 7,591 figure is gratuitous; you don't need that large a sample to buld a predictive model.

Information Technology and Productivity

Enterprise software has largely failed until now because it's cumbersome and it automates awkward and inefficient procedures. Business process reengineering must become more than a slogan. In particular, we must change how we define it; rather than simply "automating existing processes" we should be "designing workflow that's optimized through computer support."

Jay: Business Process Reengineering is more than "automating existing processes." For example, the UK's Business Processes Resource Center defines BPR as "taking a holistic customer-focused systems view and changing the organisation." Davenport & Short say it's "the analysis and design of workflows and processes within and between organizations." Teng says it's "the critical analysis and radical redesign of existing business processes to achieve breakthrough improvements in performance measures."

Through methods such as field studies, task analysis, and user testing, organizations can discover new ways of working and better ways of supporting work with information technology.

Jay: Ho hum. That's old paradigm thinking. One of the most exciting things about the workflow approach is real-time feedback. You're doing field studies and task analysis all the time, because they are built directly into the workflow. Our job at the Workflow Institute is to close the gap between analysis and taking action. Admittedly, this is not good news for stand-up seminar providers.

Growth in Usability Jobs

One positive aspect of outsourcing some programming jobs is that software development will get cheaper. Applied properly, the savings could improve usability and thus the productivity of end users. One of the main reasons for poor design is that design teams lack the resources required to implement all of the usability recommendations. (The biggest reason for this is that many companies do zero usability, but even companies committed to usability never get around to implementing every guideline.)

Jay: It's naive to assume that time freed up through outsourcing will be diverted into usability. Furthermore, the work to be done is for workflow designers, not programmers.

Usability is key to increasing the service economy's productivity, because only attention to the way humans work can help them work smarter. If we adjust our focus accordingly, we won't just save billions of dollars from productivity gains -- we'll also save millions of jobs and create millions of new ones.

Jay: Oh, silly me. It's only usability? And I was counting on major gains from the continuing advance of Moore's Law, the interoperability fostered by Web Standards, the decentralization of organizations, the evolution of biotech, and the proliferation of networks, too.

Note: No graphics were used in the creation of this page. Usability only goes so far. Someone might still be jacking in with a 300 baud modem.

Posted by Jay Cross at March 30, 2004 05:58 PM | TrackBack

Hi Jay
Check this out too - An open letter to Jakob Nielsen (

Posted by: Anol at March 30, 2004 07:17 PM

A tunnel-visioned focus on the "usability" of a hammer will produce better weight distribution, a more shock-absorbant comfort-grip non-slip handle, and laser-guided gyroscopic thumnail aversion mechanisms. It may even lead to magnetically unmissable nail-heads and always perpendicular pre-impact nail-stance stabilisers. It will not lead to (and may even distract from) the invention of the screw and the screwdriver, and will do little to expand the fields of carpentry, construction, and materials science.

Posted by: Godfrey Parkin at March 31, 2004 05:32 AM

As the esteemed Mr. Feynman noted, "in this world of increasing specialisation, one is always apt to make a fool of oneself when discussing issues outside their chosen discipline."


Posted by: mindful_learner at April 1, 2004 09:14 AM

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