Aug. 15th, 2010

aleph3: (Default)
A couple of weeks ago now I pitched in to help with the annual inventory at my wife's bookstore. The end product is actually an abstraction of inventory: they don't need titles, or even a count of books, just the total cover price.

This is done by several pairs of people, one person to iterate over the shelves in a section and call down prices, and another to total them on a printing calculator. I naturally had an initial reaction of "can't a general-purpose computer - a laptop with a spreadsheet or a mobile device - do this just as well?", which I soon withdrew, having observed:

- the calculator effectively throttles the flow of information to a manageable pass, by sending a very audible signal that the last number has been entered
- the calculator has a very visible audit trail of all actions, even errors and the recovery therefrom

Most shared activities involve a certain amount of coordination, but the manner of that coordination can have different qualities of efficiency and pleasantness for the participants. For instance, in this case, the person entering the numbers could say "Next" if the operation was silent, but over several hours that gets to be unneeded wear-and-tear on the vocal cords.

(One of my favourite examples of "conservation of coordinating information" is paying in cash between Canada and the US. Canadian bills differ sharply in colour and are hard to mistake for one another; with American banknotes, the differences are subtle where they exist at all. So in the US, I've observed, people tend to hand over bills with "There's (denomination)", and the cashier echoes it back. Having picked up this habit, I now find myself doing it in Canada, and of course I sometimes get looked at as though I've just called someone an idiot.)

Some of the other out-of-band benefits of doing things the current way are:
- maintaining a community of people with some solid connection to the business other than being employees or patrons (full disclosure: we got compensated with store credit)
- running several sets of eyes over the whole store, increasing the chance of catching moved or mis-filed books, weird shit placed on shelves (Chick tracts, or the like), and things like that

And you know, apart from a data-entry app which makes a "ka-CHUNK" sound, I can't really think of a very helpful way to replace the adding calculator. Things in a system just tend to have a whole range of undocumented side effects: a recent classic example being that LED traffic lights don't melt snow the way incandescent lights used to, so municipalities now need to dust them off by hand. I'm never gonna say that the lesson is "don't change anything ever", but higher-order effects always need to be considered. Which sounds easy but is hard. At the very least, though, it means that the people who work with a system directly need a lot of input, and not just their managers and the people holding the purse-strings.


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August 2010

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