Head Down – Data Entry in the Modern World

Author: Dave Thresher
When I started writing software in the ‘80s, most companies had just phased out keypunch operators, or were in the process of doing so.  To replace the vital process of entering massive amounts of data through a keyboard, programmers were tasked with creating terminal software that would replace the keypunch machines.
This is when I learned about “Head Down” data entry.  I was writing this kind of program for people who knew how to type at astonishing rates and carry on a conversation at the same time.  It was if they had two separate brains, one that used the eyes and fingers, and another that used their vocal cords and mouth.  In any case, they needed to be able to fix their eyes on the data source and almost never look at the screen.  Of course, there was no mouse involved either.
So it went: Tab, type, tab, tab, type, tab, type, tab, type etc.  In a very short time, they would have memorized the current data form they were using and simply go to town.
Years later, I was talking to a friend who worked for a casino, entering data from the pit.  You know, the kind of data that casinos use to calculate the comps for the players.  She was complaining that it used to be very easy to enter the data as it was in a DOS format, and the data entry was exactly like entering data on a mainframe using tabs and typing.
The new Window app was causing her a lot of problems, because the tab order wasn’t the same as before, and the software trainer had instructed her to use the mouse to navigate between fields.  I asked her to show me and sat with her for a few minutes while she worked.  I noticed that the programmer may have missed some of the tab orders, but did include the alt+key shortcuts.  I showed her how that worked and she could then nearly match her previous productivity.
Ironically, the casino hired the trainer a few weeks later.  They were in the same office and my friend was busily entering data, but she noticed the trainer kept giving her strange looks.  When she asked, the trainer said she couldn’t figure out how she was doing her job so fast.
So, the moral of the story is to pay attention to the way data can be entered into your application.  If it can’t be done from the keyboard alone, it’s not complete.
Author: Dave Thresher