Browser shortcuts...

One of the most common complaints I hear from legacy (mainframe) system users when they're talking about browser based apps is that it takes longer to do things. They complain that they have to click here, there and everywhere just do something that they used to be able to type into a single command line from a mainframe green screen. To us techies, we really don't truly understand this feeling that this user base is experiencing. "Isn't it so intuitive now?" we say. Well, yes, anyone could figure out how to use the your business application if the application workflow is set in stone. Don't let them click here if they haven't clicked there is how we try to design our applications, which makes sense to us. Why does it make sense to us? It's due to the fact that we have never really truly done the work ourselves over and over again.

Browser based applications that incorporate workflow type processes are great for the processes that "flow" from one step to the next. However most knowledge workers in the positions at our organizations don't really work like this. They work in a world of constantly being bombarded by requests. A more likely "flow" of how their day goes by would be something like this: Email product person question, reply to quote, expedite this order, email customer again, check voicemail, A manager stops by to tell you "there's a problem with customer X" and "why isn't supplier Y cooperating?", etc..

In the old mainframe days, the knowledge worker's systems were actually more suited for these types of "flow", since navigating to the screens could be accomplished by typing in one or two words, hence making getting to these screens to do the work quicker. Commands like "email rmurnane@", "quote CustX", "review Order#" were the navigation tools these business savy pros would have to learn in order to work efficiently in their organizations. The problem with these "shortcuts" was that it only the truely savy old-timers really navigate the system quickly. Time to market for getting new employees to use the system effeciently was really high. Companies spent millions on yellow post-it notes (that had system shortcut tips) that could be found affixed to every cubicle in the organization.

Enter the World Wide Web and intranet websites. These same organizations go out and hire new IT designers and developers that design browser based applications that should be so easy to use that pretty much anyone can get on and use them. In making them so easy to use, we've now inherently increased the amount of work a person needs to do. I've recently heard someone use the term "unintended consequences" for this and I kind of like it. The consequence of us making the browser based business application so easy to use is that it now takes longer for the majority of our user base to perform the same task they did previously.

Enter a new concept, Browser Shortcuts. Sometime ago after watching and old-timer here at my company work on our green screens I said to myself, we need to figure out a way to do this on our intranet site. I took a baby step and built a Firefox Search plug-in for our corporate employee directory and have been beta testing it now for quite a while with great success. I no longer have to navigate to our intranet homepage, click on the link to our corporate directory, enter the person's last name in the last name field (which of course is not the first field in the form, that would be way too user-friendly). I just go into my firefox browser (which is already open) choose my Corporate directory from the Search Plug-in drop down and type the person's last name in and hit enter. Now our company can have the best of both worlds, the really intuitive click here-there-everywhere and the way for the savy, click here, type last name, hit enter.

Building on this idea, I proposed an open text box be placed on our corporate intranet site. I called it "Quick launch" and basically it put a note with the following text:
"Quick Launch is a place where people can just type in key words to invoke applications, rather then navigating to them through the maze of clicks. An example would just be typing in 'upload quote' and hitting 'GO'". I showed the concept to some of the folks in my company and it never really got any traction. I must really be a lousy salesperson, because this past weekend I stumbled upon Yahoo! Open Shortcuts. Yahoo! is saying this about the shortcuts:
"Use custom keywords to directly search a site or start a task from the convenience of any Yahoo! Search box. Try one we have already created for you. Search for: "
!ebay lamps -searches for lamps
!mail -composes Yahoo! email to
!wsf -searches "weather san francisco" on Yahoo!
!my - goes to

Two thumbs up to Yahoo! for doing this. If it takes off at Yahoo! I'm sure that my salespitch will be that much better the next time I bring it up here at my company. If we invest in it, perhaps those old-timer one-liner's will begin to smile (and not frown) the next time they find themselves in front of a browser and not a green screen.

Until next time...Rich