- Published on Apr 01, 2009
- Contact Nicole Casal Moore
These are common ways to waste effort in popular computer programs, says University of Michigan researcher Suresh Bhavnani. His five-year study, funded by the National Science Foundation, has identified four underutilized powers of popular computer programs and nine strategies to exploit those powers to achieve efficient and effective computer use.
Bhavnani will give an invited talk on this research April 7 at the Association for Computing Machinery?s Computer-Human Interaction conference in Boston.
?Despite many years of using applications such as web authoring tools, spreadsheets, and word processors, most users have difficulty acquiring the knowledge to use these programs most effectively. Often, computer users do unnecessary work, which leads to wasted time and costly errors especially for complex tasks. The computer should be doing more of the work,? said Bhavnani, a research assistant professor in the Center for Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics in the Medical School.
In addition to identifying strategies to exploit the power of computer applications, Bhavnani has identified a teaching approach that helps users quickly learn those strategies. This teaching approach could be used in the workplace, universities and high schools, he said.
?Many users don?t exploit the powers of the computer?the special functions that computer applications provide,? Bhavnani said. ?If you don?t understand these basic powers, the strategies to use them don?t occur to you.?
Bhavnani noticed this ?missing layer of knowledge? while studying how architects use computer-aided design programs. He found that they used the computers in much the same way they had used their pencils and T-squares.
For example, one way to draw three arched windows is to draw all the arcs across the windows, then all their vertical lines, followed by their horizontal lines. This method is efficient for manual drawing as it saves time by eliminating switching between tools such as the ruler and compass. But on a computer, it?s best to draw all the elements of the first window, group the elements, then copy and paste them to make more windows.
?The architects knew how to group elements and to copy and paste, but they weren?t incorporating these commands in the most effective way,? Bhavnani said. ?They needed to know how to decompose complex tasks using strategies so they could fully exploit the powers of computers.?
Bhavnani calls the underutilized powers he identified iteration, propagation, organization and visualization. Iteration goes beyond simply copying and pasting. It?s the power to group the right set of elements and then copy and paste them, saving time and reducing errors.
Propagation is the ability to connect items so that making one small change ripples though a document, making changes in other places. Organization is the ability to order and arrange information so that their organization is maintained when the information changes. Visualization is the ability to selectively present information based on the user?s preference, allowing her to look at data from new and varied perspectives.
Most computer literacy courses focus on teaching commands for particular applications, Bhavnani says. But users don?t spontaneously understand when and how best to use those commands. His teaching method explicitly teaches these next steps: when to use commands, how to use them and how to order them to delegate critical tasks to the computer. Understanding these strategies helps computer users no matter what application they?re using, Bhavnani says.
Bhavnani and his colleagues taught and tested the nine general strategies to almost 400 students at Carnegie Mellon University and U-M. His results showed a statistically significant improvement in the effectiveness and efficiency of the students? computer use.
The following are nine general strategies to apply in computer applications used for authoring information such as Word, Excel, and Dreamweaver, along with examples of when to use them in specific applications:
To exploit the power of iteration:
1) Reuse and modify groups of objects: Don?t start from scratch if you can avoid it. Copy and modify formulas in Excel to create new ones, for example.
2) Check the original before making copies, so you don?t replicate errors.
3) Handle exceptions last: If your task is to change the width of several adjacent columns in a table, one of which needs to be left alone, don?t adjust them all separately. Change the entire group at once, then readjust the exception. Format text this way too.
To use the power of propagation:
4) Make dependencies known to the computer: Set up formulas to be dependent on data in spreadsheets. Use a slide master to format a presentation. Define styles in Word so you don?t have to format blocks of text separately.
5) Exploit dependencies to generate variations: Actually use those formulas, slide masters and styles that you set up to create different forms of the same content.
To use the power of organization:
6) Make organizations known to the computer: Tell the computer that you want information set up in a table by actually setting it up in a table rather than putting it into columns using spaces and tabs. It will retain its organization across page setups and modified content.
7) Generate new representations from existing ones: Once the computer knows your content, you can represent it in new ways such as making charts from tables, and numbered lists from bulleted lists.
To use the power of visualization:
8) View only relevant information: Zoom in to see more detail. Zoom out to find information. Use slide-sorter mode to find a slide in a presentation and go to it.
9) View parts of spread-out information simultaneously on the screen: Rather than scrolling, use split windows or new windows to bring relevant information close together on the screen to compare text that is far apart. This is helpful, for example, to see the header row of a long spreadsheet when entering or reading data in later rows.
The paper is called ?Strategy-based instruction: Lessons learned in teaching the effective and efficient use of computer applications.? It was published in May 2008 in the journal ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction.
Suresh BhavnaniACM Computer-Human Interaction conference