Which Interface?

I made an executive decision on a recent vacation to leave my ultra powerful /ultra geeky Windows 7 laptop at home.  This is a HUGE step forward for me — my kids figured out long ago that I carry my primary laptop the way other people carry security blankets.

But I figured that between my Android tablet and my Android phone and my husband’s shiny new Windows 8 convertible laptop/tablet (It’s a  Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 13, a very sexy machine for anybody who wants laptop and tablet functionality in an ultrabook format)  and my critical files accessible via dropbox,  and the ability to remote desktop my way into various servers, I really didn’t need my workhorse, much as I love it. And, yes,  I could leave the mac laptop behind, as well.

I learned a lot on this trip about how hard it can be to try to do familiar tasks when the interface changes, even when the tools are nominally the same.

I was pretty comfortable on the tablet. Mine has a real keyboard for when I need it, and I’ve had it for a few months now, so it’s tricked out with a wide variety of apps so that on the off-chance I need to ssh in to do some sort of esoteric unix magic, I’m all set.  Jellybean makes moving between apps fairly straightforward, so I almost have a rhythm for doing so.

This vacation required no emergency unix magic at all. Mostly, I used a few apps (Kindle, of course, Facebook, Skype) and a range of web browsers.  But even with my abnormally large collection of browsers (which include such standards as Firefox and Chrome)  there were browser compatibility issues, so some things were just more annoying to do than usual.

You would think I might have been more comfortable on the Windows 8 machine, which can run full versions of my fave browsers.  But it was kinda painful, too.  First of all, if you run things in the “Surface” shell,  (the pretty tabletty interface) they have to run full screen.   Which makes sense, I guess, on a tablet or a phone, (I’m sort of used to it on the android tablet)  but it’s really not the way I work on a 13 inch laptop – I like to have windows tiled on top of one another so I can easily switch between browser, Skype, and say a word document or a spreadsheet.  Not being able to reshape things to take what I see as their “rightful” place on my screen is annoying.

So I bailed to the more pedestrian “Desktop” which is where full Windows 8 installations hide all that boring-but-necessary stuff (like Outlook) we’re carrying over from previous versions of Windows. It’s better, but again I ran into browser compatibility issues, (not everything supports IE 9 yet),  and because the Windows 8 version of skype is optimized for the Surface shell, I had to keep flipping back and forth between Surface and Desktop mode if I wanted to check a calendar date or an email message while on a call.  (There is apparently a “snap” mode to Skype for Windows 8 which allows it to appear alongside some apps.  I haven’t quite figured out how that works yet, or if it works on the desktop.)

None of this prevented me from doing what I needed to do, but it did make it uncomfortable and slow.

Way back in 1995, the Java programming language promised  to bring us into the world-wide-web full of write once applications which run anywhere, across multiple platforms. Clearly, we’re not there yet.  We’re still figuring out how to optimize new tech like the touch-screen.  Things do run very differently on different devices.

As we think about optimizing our training activities for tablets and smartphones and laptops, especially in environments where trainees bring their own device, we’re going to need to be very thoughtful about how we do it.  To keep our training “near task” we’ll want to present it in an interface similar to the one in which the work will be done.  And we’ll need to develop and launch it quickly, before the interface changes again!