Just today, I ran across an advertisement for Harper’s Magazine that told why a person would want to subscribe to it. Like many magazines, it mentioned their subscribers would have access to both the printed and the on-line version (nothing special in that). They also mentioned that, with the on-line version, subscribers could search the archives (once again, nothing special). But then they pointed-out that this would give you access to their archives and they listed the authors. This is where it got interesting. They weren’t just talking about going back to when the digital version of the magazine came out; they specifically mentioned that readers would have access to long past authors such as Mark Twain, Edna St. Vincent Millay and William Faulkner. This, due to the fact that they’ve put their entire archives on-line, going back to their beginning issue from 1850. Here is a good and compelling use for this archiving function.
But for many of the technology magazines we read, once we read or skim it, on-line or in-print, since technology changes so fast, we are probably not that likely to go back to many of the articles. More articles on “hot” topics come out so frequently that most of us probably have a hard time keeping-up with them, let alone going back to the archives to review the older ones. And so, the ability to “search the archives” which is so often listed as a selling point of all magazines, these days, is not a compelling-enough feature to make most technology-based magazines stand out.
This leads me to remember an excellent presentation I attended a couple years ago on the delivery of information to the final user. Overall, the presentation gave a clear view of why the issue is so difficult. People have different preferences; different delivery methods work best in different situations; that’s just to name a couple of the issues. As part of that, it did touch on the topic of “paper versus electronic.”
It is no different for any of us working with software, be it an on-line magazine, a LIMS, an ELN, or an embedded system (such as a microwave oven or a mobile phone). Each has a variety of information to impart, expectations from its users on how to get it, but sometimes an entirely different reality in how the user finally uses what they get.
Where some of our “hot” topics are similar to other industries, these days, one which we talk about is that of being “paperless” which partly requires stopping people from hitting the “print” button so often (idea: as part of the current trend to outsource things to a far-away country, let’s outsource the printing of everything to another far-away country; if everyone knew it would take days to get their printout, maybe they’d be less like to bother). One reason it’s so difficult is that we’re replacing something flexible, cheap and highly portable (a pen) with something extremely complicated and expensive (software) and potentially heavy (a laptop, for example; in fact, just about any device is still much heavier and bulkier than a pen). Then, how much money should we spend to replace a pen? This is where we need to justify the decisions made along the way and to show a real value, not merely parrot that which we’ve read somewhere or another.
We also talk about using the web to delivery information to small devices. We get quite excited about this. Until we go to apply it, of course, and then we realize we haven’t thought much past the “coolness” of the idea to figure out where to best use it. After all, the idea of sending information to a smart phone is fun for developers until they start to think about the places where they really can and should send out smaller bits of information (i.e., not stability reports). Then, they start to think a little bigger for their delivery system, such as an iPad or tablet PC, but then get into the issue, once again, that it’s not something a person would have just hooked onto their belt, as with the smart phone.
But just as with the example of Harper’s magazine I gave at the beginning of this post, where they found a compelling reason to want to use the feature that everyone has, it will take those people that understand the user’s needs who will come up with the great uses for these various delivery systems, where there are any such great uses.