“Screensucking” Is Sapping American Productivity And Innovation

You can thank Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Williams and others for turning America’s legendary productivity into wasteful social media “screensucking.” While social media may be engaging, it does not always help us accomplish what really needs to get done. It’s time to refocus America’s software ingenuity on making productivity software as delightful to use as social networking.

Computers were once productivity boosters. Now they’ve morphed into social media touchpoints. This global trend - plus a dearth in computer innovation - is reining in productivity.

Americans spend about 1 billion hours each month on Facebook. And 140 million U.S. Twitter users devote 36 minutes a month to the service - totaling 84 million hours! The pervasive habit of being glued to LCD screens was aptly dubbed “screensucking” by Dr. Edward Hallowell in 2006.

Innovation Drives Productivity

Technology innovation became a substantial productivity driver during key periods in our country’s economic growth. Between 1973 and 1995, U.S. productivity grew about 1.5% per year. But between 1995 and 2000 productivity growth nearly doubled to 2.9% annually (PDF).

 

The New York Fed concluded in a December 2004 analysis that the sudden surge in worker productivity was fueled by “sectors of the economy that produce information technology (IT) or use IT equipment and software most intensively.”

So the dot.com boom markedly boosted productivity. Yet in the past four years productivity growth has fallen to a 2% annual rate. And while the recession and subsequent market doldrums are partially to blame for this decline, I believe that paying more attention to the development of entertaining “apps” has shunted innovation in software that could significantly boost our country’s productivity.

You’re A Drag On My Drop

Every day, office workers - you may be one of them - toil using technology meant to improve their efficiency. That is, until an email gets misdirected or a last-minute graph needs to be created and dropped into PowerPoint. Or until or a marketing list gets compiled in a spreadsheet and then exported as a .csv file so it can be laboriously imported into yet another tool in order to do whatever needs to be done.

.CSV files? In 2012? What hostile planet are we on?

Even Apple, a stalwart in mobile innovation, has spent a lot of time refining the faux “printed book” look of its address book program, yet its latest iteration, Contacts, is still not Facebook or Twitter-aware.

In 2004, I wrote an article for Fast Company titled “The Need for More Drag and Drop,” in which I expressed my wish that even the folks in IT should experience the joys of drag and drop. A casual search of Google shows that my dream remains unfulfilled.

Yet survey after survey shows that ease-of-use remains the paramount concern of computer users. In a study of 255 business intelligence tool users, ease-of-use was rated as more important than features or analytics, with 47% saying ease-of-use was “very important,” while 32% called it “essential.”

Fact is productivity software innovation, including Mac and PC software, is in a moribund state. And our economy is taking a direct hit as a result. We should be trailblazing exciting new software directions. Instead, we’re still chewing on leftovers from the ‘70s. Metaphors developed in another era, before the Internet and social media.

And this is why I believe software needs to be reinvented. As developed right now, it’s inefficient, cumbersome and not intuitive. Email, and in particular Customer Relations Management (CRM), need to enter the 21st century.

Here’s how it should work. Anyone, including Joe Sixpack CEO, should be able to push one button to send an email to the top 20% of customers without having to invoke the voodoo magic of the IT department. Creating a promotion should be as simple as graphically connecting a line between a database and word processor icons, and filling out a properties form. Yes, that simple.

Apple’s address book should intelligently sort contacts by social network, and allow you to seamlessly share subgroups with other programs without requiring a .csv degree in engineering. Next-generation software should anticipate user needs, so when you drag a name from a contacts list to your email program it should create an email. Drag it to your promo tool and it exports name and email address.

Thousand Points of UI Lights

To get there we need to pivot our development priorities toward software applications that will boost productivity. We need to create a thousand user interface (UI) design studios specializing in a new craft - total user experience (TUX).

There’s promise lurking over the horizon. HTML5 will make it easy to add drag and drop to Web-based services. And I’m encouraged by companies that broke through in data visualization (Mint), simplicity (Simple), or have made heretofore difficult tasks, like customer invoicing, much easier (The Invoice Machine).

But we need a bigger push toward new ways of doing things. You can help. Here’s a link to my Social Revolution ideation engine, where your ideas will be collected and ranked. I would like to hear your thoughts and opinions on what makes for better software and have other visitors like, or unlike, them.

It’s time to become productive again, and have fun doing it.

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.