My very first job was in a university HR department. Me and a friend of mine, two students of the same university, were appointed officially by this department as software developer apprentices. But, before we could start learning programming, our first task was to type in all the teaching stuff profiles that were available as staples of paper forms. For that task we were given two IBM PC compatible computers running MS DOS.
I didn’t object. My only previous experience with computers was a hand-made home computer using the TV set of my parents as monitor, my HiFi tape deck as storage device, and having a keyboard soldered by my father with usual buttons. Thus I was extremely excited to see the gray plastic monitor, which was specifically produced to be a monitor, not a TV. Excited to touch the real 101-key keyboard that has been made of the same gray plastic, and was looking just like the one on a photo from the “Information USA” booklet by United States Information Agency. As a child I liked to watch its photos and to dream to use these devices.
And I was excited to watch the real HDD blinking me with its LED as it was reading and writing files. Yeah, IBM was my first PC having an operating system and a file system, and these new concepts were especially fascinating for me. And yeah, it has been made outside of the Soviet Union, somewhere far far away, in the unknown and exotic West. The Russian word for HDD was for some reason “winchester”, and I believed my HDD was also coming straight from England, the land of Sherlock Holmes, Jerome K. Jerome and Winnie the Pooh.
So, in the first weeks, I felt myself in a fairy tale. I’ve enjoyed every button press. I loved the UI of the database software we were using. I watched the HDD LED closely and knew exactly, when our software is going to access it.
But, after some time, the charm went away. We still had plenty of profiles to type, and because we were creative young men, plain typing has underutilized our brains. We started to compete against each other, trying to reduce the time needed to enter one profile. Besides of having fun, this had a positive side effect of finishing our first assignment sooner and therefore starting to learn programming sooner. I have analyzed the data entry process and found some shortcuts, but also some innate deficiencies that could only be fixed by changing the software. Nevertheless, I’ve reduced the typing time from two-three minutes to around 50 seconds for a basic profile.
When the time of my first assignment came, I was excited to know that it was developing of another profile database software, this time to store student profiles. With around 10000 students in the university at that time, and knowledge that I will have to help entering the data myself, I was determined to reduce the form entry time as far as possible.
I didn’t know the word “usability” at that time, but I know about ergonomics, which was something my father always regarded with reverence and fascination, so I was simply applying the ideas of ergonomics in software area.
Entering a basic student profile with my database software took 15 seconds. It didn’t have cool colors (IBM supported only 16 different colors anyway), and it didn’t impress with fine graphics (we’ve used text mode, 80×24 chars, IIRC). But it allowed for very efficient form entry and, at the same time, reduced the number of typing mistakes.