Reframe CEO: We're tooled up, so why doesn’t work flow better?

This is a guest post for Computer Weekly Open Source Insider written by Jeff Szczepanski, former COO of Stack Overflow and Sphere, alongside a team of Stack Overflow alumni. 

Szczepanski is now founder & CEO at Reframe Technologies, Inc. and he writes in full as follows…

In today’s work environment, we have more productivity tools at our disposal than ever before. Yet, paradoxically, true efficiency seems increasingly out of reach. My observation? There appears to be a significant gap in how tools are designed and how they are actually utilised. Most professionals, including myself, experience a reactive mode of working, constantly interrupted by notifications, which prevents us from being proactive. This reflects a broader issue where the tools intended to streamline our work end up complicating it instead. It’s clear we need to rethink our approach to technology in the workplace.

The current offering of desktop user experiences, from my perspective, was never fundamentally crafted with productivity as its core objective. Instead, the development of these systems was really trying to solve the computer science problem of how to get more than one program running on your computer at a time. This heritage shows us that simply adding another productivity application is unlikely to address the deeper issue of multitasking and the overload it creates. Research indicates that we now use approximately a hundred different applications in our professional lives and switch between them over a thousand times daily, often copying and pasting information in record volumes. As human beings, we have become very efficient at being inefficient, simply moving information from A to B rather than using it.

Our challenge now is to reassess how technology meets human needs, meaning a shift towards a more integrated approach that enhances how we interact with our digital tools. I like to think of this in the same way that I think about mankind’s discovery of fire; simply having more fire isn’t beneficial. Rather, it’s how we use fire – for warmth, cooking and light – that makes it valuable. This is especially crucial as AI becomes woven into every aspect of technology. Currently, AI operates not as a cohesive platform, but as a set of additional tools that assist in information retrieval and content generation. Although AI is incredibly useful, within the traditional desktop computing environment, it simply adds to the workload, requiring tasks like prompting and copying and pasting between it and the numerous other applications we use.

The problem with the production line

Initially, the design of the GUI desktop was a monumental leap, transforming computing into a multitasking environment that notably boosted productivity.

However, this development did not fully anticipate the complexities of the modern world, where users juggle numerous tasks across a global stage of remote and cross-functional work. Consequently, we’ve encountered a new challenge: the success of these platforms has begun to overload our cognitive capacities. Most enterprises have something like 65 different standard applications being used. Most people have hundreds, if not thousands, of tabs on their desktop. The notion of a super application that can do everything might seem like a solution, but in reality, no single application can fully meet the diverse needs of today’s varied and expansive work environments. Misdirected efforts focus on shifting manual production methods to automated production lines; intended to streamline and expedite processes, yet often leading to unforeseen complexities and inefficiencies in new contexts.

As we advanced in creating multitasking environments through computer science, it became clear that brain science is equally crucial. While our progress in computing initially prioritised technological capabilities, at Reframe we now recognise the need for a human-centric approach.

This shift is not merely about enhancing productivity, which has this connotation of repeatable production line processes, but rather harnessing the value of human creativity in order to create new ideas that create value for a business or company. Productivity is at the mercy of the law of diminishing returns, where each additional unit of effort yields progressively smaller increases in output. In contrast, creativity – when scaled – has so much potential to transform a business and so we need to focus on developing tools that support the nuances of human creativity and interaction, which are essential in today’s diverse and dynamic work environments.

Bridging technology & human collaboration

Stepping back from the purely technological perspective allows us to consider what people truly need from their tools. Questions like “Can I focus?”, “Do I know what to do next?”, “How can I prioritise tasks?” and “How am I aligned with my team?” are fundamentally human concerns that current software often fails to address adequately.

There’s a great term in the literature called ‘impoverished idealisation’, which talks about the fact that we have simply taken the pile of messy paper from the desk and digitized this on a computer. The real challenge lies in integrating these human elements into our technological frameworks to enhance collaboration. This approach requires a deep understanding of how we can bind these aspects together within the digital workflows, transforming how we interact not only with the technology but also with each other.

The primary focus should be on how to advance human capacity through technology—not merely to speed up traditional tasks like writing emails or letters. The real challenge lies in crafting environments where technology genuinely supports and enhances human interaction and collaboration, rather than replacing it. We need to create digital spaces that amplify our human abilities, enabling more meaningful and effective collaborations.

Szczepanski: Catalyse a shift that ‘could’ revolutionise the workplace

Cognitive overload – or, to borrow an excellent term from the National Institute of Health, “technostress” – has the potential to completely derail the usefulness of technology to mankind.

Without trying to sound like the harbinger of doom, we need to move beyond merely creating aesthetically pleasing applications and user interfaces. It’s imperative for the tech community and potential partners to fundamentally reassess the relationship between humans and computers.

It seems odd to me that there doesn’t seem to be any businesses out there that have a mission statement to keep marching on human capacity for knowledge. Instead, we are told that we need to work with computers, rather than computers working with us.

At Reframe, our goal is to catalyse a shift that could revolutionise the workplace, making it more adaptable, efficient and attuned to human needs.

This is not just about enhancing productivity—it’s about redefining it in a way that aligns with our human strengths and creates a more fulfilling work environment (sprinkled with a dash of very real human creativity).

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