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“Intelligent” Macros that Reduce the Cognitive Effort of Operating a Computer

Copyright © Alan Cantor 2006. All rights reserved
This paper was presented at the SIG-14 (Job Accommodation and Ergonomics) Show-and-Tell, RESNA 2006.

Macros that automate repetitive tasks reduce the physical effort of running a personal computer. During this presentation, I demonstrate macros that also lessen the cognitive effort of learning and operating software.

My client was an office worker with a ten-year history of computer-induced repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). In particular, overusing a pointing device (e.g., mouse, track-ball, or touchpad) precipitated painful flair-ups. Much of the job involved retrieving data from a database application. The old, character-based version was 100% keyboard-driven, and did not cause the client significant problems. The new, web-based version lacked built-in keyboard support. Soon after the new version was introduced, the employee began to experience increasing pain and weakness in her fingers, hands, wrists, arms, elbows, neck, shoulders, and back. To address her rapidly deteriorating condition, the developers created a clever hack to improve keyboard access, but the technique was awkward to use. Eventually, physical pain and psychological stress led the employee to take a month-long leave.

Just before and during her leave, I scripted a set of "intelligent" macros, i.e., macros that make context-based decisions based on information that the macro software receives and processes from the user and from the user interface. The macros greatly simplified keyboard interaction. Physically, the application was easier to operate than the character-based version of the software. Cognitively, the macros reduced the effort to understand, learn, and remember the application. For example:

  • Two intuitive hotkeys replaced nine (or more) unintuitive key sequences;
  • Keyboard techniques for interacting with standard windows worked with the application's non-standard windows;
  • The need to attend to screen information was minimized; and
  • The program was usable without the need to shift attention between the keyboard and the screen.

Approximate cost to design, script, test and debug the macros: $1750.