One Small Step for Users...One Giant Step for Productivity

At Smartsheet, we believe in the importance of delivering solutions that customers can use. We want to enable workers be more productive at their jobs, not force them to spend time learning something that’s not their job. How, then, do we help workers be more productive without requiring them to learn how to code? 

There’s been a lot of talk about the development of machine learning that will know what people want before they want it, and perform actions accordingly. This has the potential to significantly improve productivity, but it isn’t yet where we need it to be in order to help workers be more effective. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and Google Now can all help you make a list. Yet I challenge how often you have done that from your desk, at work.

Until artificial intelligence reaches the sweet spot where understanding meets seamless integration with every form factor, there are things we can do to solve business problems for workers through automation right now. This will require action on the part of the worker to show software what needs to be done the first time they set up an automation.

Showing software what to do shouldn’t require users to code. We want users to be able to remove steps from processes without having to learn how to do something entirely different than what they already do every day. To make this possible, we must think about how we can utilize what is familiar to teach workers how to solve these problems by leading them down the path of automation. 

Familiarity Breeds Productivity

As we build out ways to help our customers remove steps from their daily processes, we spend a lot of time thinking about how workers can learn how to automate work in ways that feel familiar. What might be a leap in one application is experienced by workers as simple step in terms of what they need to know and do to make automation work. 

An example of taking small steps toward big technology changes can be seen in one of the earliest productivity applications: word processors. The first word processors incorporated the basic functions of an electric typewriter with a computer processor and a recording unit, so anyone familiar with a typewriter could use it.

In a similar way, we can ease workers into taking new actions as part of their day-to-day work by building on what is familiar. When we do this, actions that would have seemed disruptive to productivity can feel like a logical next step - or even like something workers already know how to do.

Getting “Smart” About the Sheet

Using the familiar to teach users isn’t a radical idea. But it is something that we have to remember as we chase natural language and human interaction. Smartsheet was created because other tools for managing work required that you understood project management. Creating tasks, special fields, forced dates, and dependencies - just to map the process in your head - is a lot of work, especially if you’re not a project manager per se. We believed everyone was already doing most of this in a spreadsheet, so we started from there.  

And we’ve already begun the work of removing steps by using what’s familiar. For example, instead of having to add a field to your project and then edit each task away from the default, in Smartsheet you can just add a column and use the fill down feature to populate your default value. Then you can quickly edit the column for fields that aren’t the default. This is so natural to people familiar with a spreadsheet that very few people look at our product and realize they have fundamentally changed their data model or task structure.

Another example is creating and managing hierarchy and the relationship of tasks, which is also complicated in a lot of project management software.  However, if you have ever made an outline or a bulleted list, you know you just indent one item under another - and bam! - you have a subitem. We took that to represent hierarchy between work items. Want a subtask or a required part to build your widget? Just click the indent row button.

Everyday, we take advantage of the familiar. As we innovate automated processes for users, we have to continue this theme.  When we were working on our automated notifications feature, we started with a conditional builder: If this condition then do this thing. Users checked out.  We had to go back to the drawing board. We modified our UI to use specific actions and words they could relate to. When a column changes, send me an email. There is the familiar: update to spreadsheet followed by email. 

To accomplish this, we spend a significant amount of time in usability testing on language and word choice, as well as all other aspects of user experience. We start with what’s familiar, whether it’s in our tool or another. We look at what workers already know, and innovate around the small steps they can take that have a huge impact on their productivity. We may not get a rocket to Mars, but we will get millions of users to try something they have never done before. 

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