Ambushed by bureaucracy

The first event on my Day of DH (which so distracted me that I completely forgot it was Day of DH until lunchtime) was payroll. Brown University recently switched to a new payroll system that is based entirely on Flash and has interfaces of labyrinthine complexity. As far as I can tell, no one understands it—we all navigate by reproducing whatever odd pathway happened to lead us to the thing we need. If we could see a site map, with our actual routes plotted on it, I am sure they would be comically convoluted: like going all the way around the block to get to the house next door (which happens to be hidden by a tall hedge). Communicating with other people—for instance, working with an administrative colleague to discover whether my students have submitted any hours for the last pay period—involves a ritual of establishing that we are in fact looking at the same thing: “So, click on where it says your name and that funny number… OK, now click on your organization and then to go Tasks… no, not that one, the one in the lower left…”

This would just be a funny (not funny ha-ha) story about how bad a bad interface can be, except that I shared my woes with someone at another institution who said “So you hate [payroll system]? Everyone loves [payroll system]!!” This took me by surprise and made me think: How is it possible for someone to love a system like this, which makes it impossible to understand how it works, or to get any systematic access to the underlying data, or to accomplish any task efficiently? That question has shifted in my mind: What is different about the people who love a system like this? What is the audience for this kind of system? What are they responding to? I can’t just write them off as lunatics unless I’m willing to have them do the same.

A bit more dispassionately, the distinctive properties of this system seem to be:

  • it is very “designed”: the layouts are not bound to a database-like grid, but arrange the visual items in more creative ways.
  • it does not expose its structure in its navigation; the navigation is more like teleporting (“go here! by magic! through a wall! don’t worry how we got here!”).
  • it does not seek to make repetitive tasks ergonomically economical (e.g. by providing a way to do them all at once, or providing a way to do all the steps of a task on one screen); it places a higher value on simplicity of presentation for any specific sub-task than it does on efficiency or economy of motion.
  • by making a lot of its navigation rely on bookmarking and “favorites”, it encourages people to script their most common tasks, creating their own shortcuts and memorable paths through what would otherwise be a very complex navigational environment.

So I can understand that this would appeal to—or even create—users who don’t seek to engage with it as experts on the information it contains, but who rather have a set of tasks that need to be accomplished at intervals. It’s pleasant to look at (which I find obscurely irritating) and very, very hard on the wrists. And it reminds one of the value of serendipity, since that’s how I seem to find my way around…

I feel sure there are some useful lessons to be learned here from a DH perspective!