In response to a popular recent item — “We posted weekly.pdf to the website. Isn’t that good enough?” — Sarah Allen echoes my favorite Sergey Brin quote. Sergey said: “I’d rather make progress by having computers understand what humans write, than by forcing humans to write in ways computers can understand.”
Sarah, citing weblog software as an example of software that enables people to write naturally, goes on to say:
Likewise, it is natural to record calendar information overlaid on a timeline with day, week, and month views that mimic traditional paper visualizations of time. This enables the software to generate structured data without people needing to think about it.
I mostly agree with her about blog software. And I would have been inclined to agree with her about calendar software too, until I started looking seriously into how people do — and often don’t — use calendar software.
Let’s look at a fragment of a softball schedule which, significantly, has been written as an Excel file:
|Fri. Apr. 25||6:15||Whitney Brothers||Greenwald Realty|
|Sat. Apr. 26||9:00||WR Painting||Peerless Insurance|
Notice what’s missing? There’s no AM/PM, because everybody is expected to know that 6:15AM would be too early for a Friday game while 9:00PM would be too late for a Saturday game.
Yes, it’s natural to view calendar information in ways that mimic traditional presentations. But it’s unnatural to write it using calendar software that constantly nags you to specify nitpicky details like AM and PM. People understand what’s a reasonable time for a Friday or Saturday game. Why can’t software figure that out?
I guess that’s why another recent item on parsing human-written date and time information struck a chord with readers. Until we create (and widely deploy) naturalistic interfaces, people are going to avoid the Procrustean bed that is conventional calendar data entry.