Analysis: does PC performance affect productivity?


Do slow PCs also slow the minds and reduce the performance of office workers? Or would a little reduction in speed be beneficial?

Across the world, teeth gnash in frustration, fingers drum in irritation and fists slam keyboards as otherwise high-performance PCs decide to take an unscheduled break.

For some, it is down to unreliable internet connections. Very often, though, it is the security software scanning multiple applications and, especially, open browser windows to make sure no insecure websites running iffy JavaScript can compromise the PC.

But does such erratic PC performance also take its toll on the psychology of users? Does a slow PC also slow the mind and reduce the performance of office workers?

According to psychologist Graham Jones, this is an area around which little direct research has been conducted.

"The bulk of the research has been done on human-computer interface design. So, how do we design a computing product, whether software or hardware, that people can use without any major difficulties?"

Much research, adds Jones, has gone into the interface designs of software, keyboards, mice, joysticks - anything that people may use to interact with a computer. "The problem with that research is that it finds that users are so varied that you end up having to make compromises," says Jones.

In other words, there is no perfect interface that will please everyone, and there is a risk that the compromises designers have to make may end up pleasing no one - or even positively angering them.

But if a computer, or the application that someone is using is slow or erratic, does that likewise slow their thinking and, hence, their performance?

"What we do know is that when you speed things up, companies that have fast broadband, for example, report that productivity goes up," says Jones.

Research conducted in New Zealand more than 10 years ago, he adds, found that companies where staff had internet access were more productive than those without - even given the slacking off that internet access can enable.

"There is a connection between being able to do things relatively quickly and productivity as a whole. But no one as far as I know has gone further than that research to ask, what was that productivity gain due to?" says Jones.

In other words: no research has actually been conducted examining exactly how internet and PC performance actually affects how people work, their attitudes to their work, and how that performance affects the way in which they think - their levels of concentration, for example, or their ability to perform their work tasks.

Quick thinking

Although there does not appear to have been any research into the direct consequences of slow PCs with people's productivity, psychologists do now have a good idea of how the mind works, and how certain stimuli affect the brain.

"It takes about 20 milliseconds to trigger brain cells, which means that thoughts actually happen well before we are consciously aware of them," says Jones.

"There is some research on how our productivity is affected by changes to the processing speed of our brain - mostly in people with psychological conditions, such as schizophrenia - which suggests that as our brain slows, we become less productive," he adds.

That, though, is probably common sense.

A slow or erratic web application will undoubtedly affect the emotional mood of the user, annoying, frustrating or even angering them.

"This will lead to alterations in attention that will allow them to start thinking outside of the narrow scope of the web application," says Jones.

In other words, if the web application is slow or unresponsive, they are more likely to be enticed to read the Telegraph Online, the Daily Mail's "sidebar of shame", or even the excellent, rather than get on with the work in hand.

Ipso facto, cautions Jones, complex applications that require some consideration might benefit from being slowed down a little - such as the trading computers used for dealing financial instruments in the City.

"Research shows that mood and speed of thought are connected, and people are much more risk-averse when they think slowly," he says.

For most office workers, though, periodically slowed down by anti-virus software, back-ups performed at peculiar hours and other applications running in the background, slowing PCs to a crawl, their PCs can never run fast enough - a clear danger for organisations that have put client refreshes on hold in uncertain economic times.


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