Essays on Technology and Culture

The Little Tweaks

My job involves an awful lot of typing. Often, it’s a lot of typing the same stuff, over and over again. When I catch myself copying and pasting, or retyping the same things over and over, I stop and create a snipped in TextExpander to do it for me. I’ve several specialized snippets I use for my job, ranging from typing “Read full article at” to complex, pop-up, fill-in forms. It’s something that takes anywhere from one to five minutes of my time, but can potentially save me hours in the long run.

We all have little parts of what we do that can be sped up, improved, or even automated. The hardest core of hardcore geeks often find themselves writing scripts, changing system settings, and installing new software for hours on end, with the intent of shaving a few seconds of a common, repetitious task. [1] To the untrained eye, it looks like procrastination. Actually, to the trained eye it can look like that, too, and it sometimes is. However, it’s those little (and not so little) tweaks and customizations that help us make technology our own.

I’m reminded of a comic where a person watches in mounting frustration as they watch another person try to search the Internet. It’s an exaggerated example—well maybe. I’ve never seen anyone use Google to get to Google and do a web search, but it is plausible. If you relate to the person watching, you’re probably more technologically savvy than 90% of the people in your life, if not more, and it’s all through exposure. The more we use something, the more we desire to make it our own [2], and we will often seek ways to do it.

In some cases, this is aided by discoverability in design. While using a new piece of software, you might think “Hey! There has to be an easier way to do x” so you start poking through menus, reading documentation, or pressing random keys until you find the one that does what you want. Your willingness to do so often comes the software’s friendliness. Of course, we’ve made this a lifestyle. For the part of the population where the technology is merely a means to an end, they will often stick with whatever workflow they’ve found works for them, no matter how cumbersome. There’s no incentive for them to consider doing otherwise.

This fundamental difference in mindset is caused by factors far too varied for me to get into here, what with my lack of training and experience in psychology, user experience, software development, or design. Suffice it to say that without an immediate value proposition beyond “Hey! This is easier/faster/cooler,” most users will find a way that works for them and stick to it. Watch your parents use a computer, and you’ll suddenly understand. Unless you’re that one guy whose parents are technology mavens, I guess.