Productivity Software is bad for Productivity

I’ve recently been using online form and automation software. It’s great that we have tools that can do these things, all accessible in a web browser.

But this software leaves a lot to be desired.

📋 Forms

I have recently been using two of the more famous free-to-use form submission websites. Google Forms and Microsoft Forms. Both tools are great. I put in a couple of questions, mail it off to people and collect the results, all of which the software neatly exports into CSV or my spreadsheet of choice.

The main interfaces are great for introducing you to form design, and the layout management helps keep everything neat and tidy. They include some options to allow customising the form, such as the colours and extra multimedia.

But the fun & easy user experience doesn’t last very long.

Microsoft Forms offers some more complex question types which Google Forms lacks. Things like pre-built Likert scales can be hacked into google forms with enough effort, but others like item re-ordering questions don’t exist at all. And forget trying to define your own kinds of questions, that’s never going to happen.

There also seem to be arbitrary limits on how big questions can be. In Microsoft Forms, many questions will only allow at most 10 sub-items. If you want more than that you need to split it across multiple questions. If it’s a pick-your-order style question you are simply out of luck if you want more than 10.

The most annoying bug is the blocky interface. For a survey with just a few questions this works. But when you end up with a long survey it becomes too unwieldy to manage. And the copy and paste can be very unreliable. Microsoft Forms doesn’t even offer true drag-and-drop which other block-based interfaces manage.

Now, I don’t mind a good WYSIWYG interface. I’m not saying forms should be presented as raw LaTeX, XML or JSON. I’m not a sadist. But just having something more like a standard word editor with form controls would make it so much easier to manage.

Microsoft Word can in fact build forms, they’re just not web accessible. I don’t know why Microsoft didn’t extend this existing capability; it would have allowed them to build a much more powerful tool.

Oh, and none of these services allow you to organise your items in folders. Directories for organisation are a passé concept now.

🏭 Automation

At the same time as forms, I’ve been looking into automation software. That’s your “if this happens, do this thing” website. The one I’m using right now is another Microsoft product, Power Automate (previously named “flow”, which in my opinion was a better name but hey, what do I know, I’m just a customer).

Like the forms this uses a drag and drop interface, and it has a lot of different connections to both Microsoft and external APIs. It’s very easy to get started using, but like the forms, the drag and drop interface eventually gets tiring and annoying when you have enough moving parts.

Power Automate has a nice feature you can use where you can download a project for local editing. You can then re-upload it. However, that takes far too long and would end up being more difficult to manage. Particularly with trying to figure out all the correct GUIDs that services try to use.

There are other service, such as IFTTT, but that requires a subscription to use more complex logic, and I’m not paying for that when I already have paid access to Microsoft’s ecosystem.

👩‍🔧 Productivity

The upshot of all this is that the various niggles and annoyances I face when trying to use software that should be helping me is, I spend far more time trying to work around them than actually using them.

It’s also not quite bad enough that I could dedicate the time to just building what I need from scratch, which is frustrating. Having programmed with web APIs in the past, the fewer of them I have to manage, the better. I can only imagine the hell that it must be to try and programmatically insert a row into an online spreadsheet.

What I’m left with is products which mostly work for what I need, but which really lack that last 10% of functionality. Products which are easy to use when prototyping, only to end up frustrating me whenever I try to build a fully functional system.

I am making full use of feedback, “let us know how we’re doing” and UserVoice forums for all of the issues I encounter, but it’s not viable to put what I’m doing on pause until the issues are resolved or extend my entire plan to allow me to redevelop everything.

Productivity Software which is bad at helping productivity, don’t you just love computers.

Header image by Patrick Hendry on unsplash