It’s a well known but little admitted problem with Enterprise Software that the User Interface sucks, and that it matters – it’s kind of a weird “Don’t ask, don’t tell” thing.
Sadly we’re all conditioned to this, accepting it as the norm – to the extent that users feel bad because they can’t immediately use the product, and companies require as a matter of course that their vendors provide extensive documentation and training to make a badly designed product usable.
The Electronic Lab Notebook industry is no stranger to these problems, and in fact suffers more than most. Products are designed by Geeks (of the IT or science variety), evaluated by teams concentrating on feature count, and thrown at users who are just required to use them.
I’ve always been concerned with the problems created by the ELN selection process, but even when a product has been selected adoption is hampered by usability issues. Good products shouldn’t need extensive consulting, training, customisation to enable the users to be productive – they should “just work”. Of course there should be APIs and the ability to customise the system (and our products do) but that work shouldn’t be a requirement to get things going.
One of the best early decisions we made was to hire an Information Architect to work on PatentSafe. What I learned is that Usability isn’t just a matter of a nicely designed User Interface, it’s also about the concepts that the software exposes to the user. In fact, consistency and transparency are more important for usability than “prettiness”.
There’s a good article on ComputerWorld on how Bad Software Design Inhibits Use of Enterprise Apps. Some choice quotes from the article (I’d encourage you to read the full thing) with some comments…
“Software manufacturers are generally confident that their products will succeed on the strength of their technology,” Hambrose writes. “But products that don’t appeal to their users can be self-defeating. Whenever software systems create obstacles-technical jargon, ambiguous messages, illogical sequences or visual clutter-the people who use these systems will respond in a variety of ways.” That typically includes undesired behaviors that users (and CIOs and applications managers) know all too well-frustrating and inefficient workarounds, complete disregard for business process, or abandonment of the application altogether.
As a vendor I’m always interested in hearing from users about how we can improve our products, and it’s depressing the number of times something’s not quite right and they just live with it rather than shouting. All the stuff in PatentSafe that makes people go “Wow” has come from conversations which have started from us probing into what a user thinks is a minor issue not worth actually mentioning. This is the major reason we visit our customers face-to-face, and I often come away with half a dozen new feature ideas.
Sadly so many companies buy stuff over and above the real interests of the users – because the user’s don’t have a voice, or because they don’t know what to ask for. Yes, there are user representatives on the purchasing committee but they suffer from what I call the Toaster problem. Again from the article:
“Hambrose: It’s the same problem, different day: dashboards, CRM systems, or whatever is coming down the pike this month. And the dashboard suffers from same problem. The consumers of the technology-the business side of the house-don’t know how to ask for what they need. They ask for what they want. That’s different than understanding the need. The tech group on the other side of the house, they’re ready to buy or build what’s asked for.
Finally, I loved this bit on what happens when they are invited into product demos. (it’s a bit too large to quote in full here).
Some days I feel we’re punished a bit by evaluators because PatentSafe is too straightforward to use. Yes, there’s a lot of power there but we’ve worked hard to make the learning curve shallow and ensure you only need to understand the bits that are relevant to you. It really does take a lot more thought and effort to design a “simple” system rather than an complex one, a lot of watching how people adopt the system, and good communication with customers long after they’ve purchased and deployed the system. Ironically sometimes people evaluate PatentSafe against other products which take a week’s training and customisation, and feel the other solutions are somehow more “powerful”. Of course, they aren’t – they just make the user work harder.
This is why we encourage prospective customers to pilot – use the system in real life, get a feel for it. 90% of the time, they fall in love – even when compared like-for-like with other products and approaches. The other 10% is where we learn a lot about how to make a better product.
By the way, our IA is Karen Roles, she’s an excellent Information Architect and available for contract work – you can see her Portfolio here. We like her to come back every now and then to make sure we haven’t strayed too far from the One True Path 🙂