Entering multiple values using code in a single field

22 Nov 2013 - 12:01am
1 year ago
6 replies
4549 reads
Petra Liverani


I work in transport incident management and the idea occurred to me that, when creating an incident, instead of tabbing through fields and completing values (either using the dropdown arrow or keyboard) operators could enter all information into a single field using simple recognised codes and separating the codes with a space.


acapri eb tg sl12 mhr


Acacia Ave/Princes Hwy intersection eastbound - truck into guardrail - shoulder and lanes 1 and 2 - estimated clearance time more than 1 hour.

The codes would not have to be entered into a particular order.

When finished, the operator would press Enter, a form would appear with all the data for confirmation. If, for example, acapri could represent more than one intersection the form would supply a dropdown with the various possibilities to choose from. I imagine a major problem might be system response time although it is only the location area which holds many possible values - all other fields have a very limited number of values in which case perhaps location could be completed separately and everything else in one field. I feel it may also be slightly more cognitively demanding and would not appeal to some operators.

What do people think if this idea and are there any examples?




22 Nov 2013 - 7:24am

This is the method that was used in the airline industry for decades.  Codes were used particularly by reservation and gate agents to indicate flight numbers, city stops, seat assignments, etc.

This method can be very efficient once a person is highly trained, but it presents an enormous learning curve for new people. Given that most companies today experience high worker mobility and much more rapid turnover of staff than was common even 10 years ago it seems likely that companies would not favor a system with such a steep barrier to entry.

Practically speaking, forms are cheap to make, and a correctly coded multi-field form supports purely keyboard entry so operators can learn to type rapidly and just use <tab> rather than <space> to separate their data values.

22 Nov 2013 - 4:48pm
Petra Liverani

Thanks, Dr Wex.

I see your point about staff turnover, however, among the operators who use this system there is not a high turnover of staff. I am an employee of 9 years myself and most operators who've left, while I've been here, have retired. One operator left for another job and came back and two were sacked. I can't think of anyone who's left otherwise - remarkably stable actually.

Ideally, perhaps you could provide both entry methods. Also, there may be some way of facilitating the entry so operators are guided in what to type. I know some operators would like it.


25 Nov 2013 - 11:51am

Maybe this is like what you're talking about: https://order.apiworldwide.com/MassOrder.aspx

It's an ordering system where, instead of searching for the items you need to order, you just type in your whole list into a single text block. It then presents you with a list that you can edit or fix before placing your order. Great time-saver for expert users. 

Seems to me that this kind of system must 

  • be forgiving of user errors (handle extra spaces, typos, etc.)
  • include the long-form entry method
  • let the user fix system errors
  • provide rules and examples
I like it. Go for it!

25 Nov 2013 - 6:29pm
Petra Liverani

Thanks very much for the example, suggestions and encouragement, kmohnkern.

The other day someone mentioned to me that, in google, she types "imdb/" before a film name to check moview reviews on the imdb site. (I was unaware of this shortcut and to restrict a search to a site always put "site:.sitename" after whatever I'm searching for which is considerably more effort). This led me to thinking that this type of search code could also be used in our transport management system. There are various items that operators search for such as Point of Interest (POI) or CCTV. Rather than using a dropdown to select the item they're looking for they could simply type "poi/blah" or "cctv/blah".

26 Nov 2013 - 1:50am
Larry Tesler

Stepping back a bit...

How do operators obtain information to enter into the system? Does a reporter usually phone it in from the site of the incident?

What sources of error are common in the incident-reporting process? Erroneous or misread street signs? Fatigue? Forgetfulness? Noisy telephome connections? Multi-tasking? Second-hand misinformation? Time pressure?

Against all that, are mistyped entries by operators a substantial concern?

The UI design that you propose expands abbreviations in the transcript and asks the operator to choose the correct one. But the reporter at the scene probably has more accurate information than the operator. A less error-prone system might be one that interprets operator abbreviations and shows or reads the transcript back to the reporter for verification, not just to the operator.

Of course, if the reporter used SMS instead of voice to report the incident in the first place, the operator might not need to enter any "about the scene" data at all.


26 Nov 2013 - 11:27am
Juan Lanus


You expressed a cocern about performance, please don't. The programmer has to be very "creative" to be able to slow down a modern computer. And the slowing task was to happen frequently enough, like say, hundreds per second. 

As of your UI, yes to the dual command (full form and abbreviared command line).

Additionally, I'd suggest that the UI give feedback to the user as he is writing the text, immediate feedback, like when you type a query in the Google search form.

This way the command line can be used for training: users can check and correct their input before hittong the dreaded enter key. 

A similar functionality can be observed when a developer writes code into the Eclipse or Visual Studio IDEs.

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