The business case for better software design

Although enterprise software is pervasive in business, the products and industry tend to be flat, boring, and too often devoid of human expression.

In the olden days, maybe 20 years ago, none of that mattered because software offered buyers such enormous productivity gains — beneficial economics drove entire industries to buy enterprise products such as ERP. The downsides of high implementation costs, business interruption, and poor user adoption were less important than the opportunity to gain efficiency and wear the ERP badge of honor.

Today, established enterprise software vendors can no longer afford to ignore user experience, and many large suppliers are improving their products while making them easier to implement and simpler for users to adopt.

The transformation of enterprise computing parallels the rise of the consumer Internet and social software such as Twitter, Facebook, Skype, and others. Combined with the pervasive availability of mobile devices and smartphones, the fabric of consumer expectations regarding software has changed over the last decade.

Cloud computing has enabled a new breed of enterprise software-as-a-service startups to make genuine inroads in a competitive fight against large established players. In response, the large companies are trying to figure out how to manage the vastly different economics between cloud computing and their old, on-premise business model. For an industry with roots in the dry, fluorescent lights of back office computing, these welcome changes reflect the increasing importance of consumer-style software.

Yes, enterprise software today is in transition.

Productivity And Enjoyment Can Exist

The cost of poorly designed software is money, time and overall business health. Enterprise software vendors need to learn from the better features of consumer products like Facebook and Apple - that productivity and enjoyment can coexist.

Social media's explosive growth and engagement, with 1.15 billion people using Facebook every month, has changed the face of consumer software forever. Yet most enterprise software vendors and the IT departments procuring the software haven't caught up. They haven't quite caught on that people gravitate toward tools where they can make connections - with ideas, insights, and people. We return to tools that don't make us feel stupid. We stick with tools that are friendly, focused, functional, fun, and fast. Shouldn't business tools share those aspirations?

Greater than 47% of employees 18-30 and 37% of those 31-45 expect to use the same type of networking tools with their business colleagues as they do with friends and family. If the business doesn't come through with the kind of information and delivery that turns them on - provides education, advances careers, and nurtures creativity - they'll just do it elsewhere. With smartphones and tablets, we can network on the train or in a coffee shop as easily as an office or meeting room, bypassing corporate firewalls.

Bad software design has more than morale and productivity consequences. Hick's Law states that the time it takes to make a decision increases as the number of alternatives increase. To date, most enterprise software prioritizes advanced capabilities over usability, let alone making well-informed decisions. As systems get more flexible, usability usually decreases.

The Workforce Of The Future Has Arrived

Wide research on demographic shifts show that businesses and their software need to work differently to attract, retain, and inspire talent. These shifts are caused by differences in generation, gender, economics, and consumer expectations.

Never before have four different generations, with four different sets of experiences, been in the workplace together. A young colleague, expecting instant answers and constant connectivity works beside a coworker ready to retire who doesn't want to waste time navigating inefficient systems. Make it work or they walk...or worse yet, squander your money for hours every day.

We may not have entered the 'Jetson's age' (yet), but we're close. Success will go to those businesses savvy enough to understand, learn from, and leverage critical demographic shifts.

Complexity Is Not The Enemy Of Simplicity

In the last 5 years, the old request to make enterprise software look as easy to use as has been replaced by appeals for Facebook-like interfaces. Unfortunately, developers often dismiss these requests, arguing that the processes companies need automated are more complex than Amazon or Facebook. But is that true?

Amazon is mediating access to well over a billion items disbursed across over 25 million square feet of space, serving 137 million customers a week, each with unique credit cards, mailing addresses and e-book platforms. And their interface is still busier than it needs to be.

Facebook has more than a billion objects that people interact with (page, groups, events, and community pages), available in 70 languages, and 300 million new photos uploaded each day, connecting people across groups and timelines. As archaic as Facebook may feel in 2014, especially when they roll out yet another new design, it expertly hides data being gathered and serves up the detail just in time.

In software design, simplicity should not precede complexity, but follow it. Well designed software doesn't expect the people using it to understand the implementation model under the hood any more than a car requires you to manipulate the engine in order to use it.

People Don't Solve Problems With Features

A good interface directs our attention to the purpose of the tool, rather than overwhelming us with all the things we could do but don't need to. Apple's streamlined interfaces have reset our expectations for how all applications, even data-heavy apps, can present information in clean, clear ways.

The edge capabilities of software need to be designed and programmed, but they should never be the design focus. Developers need to ask, "Will John want to perform this operation often? Will he ever?" With this knowledge, they should prioritize functionality. People have no patience for software that wastes their time. Too often the features of our products are a patchwork of nifty technological innovations structured around a marketing requirements document or the structure of the development team, with too little attention paid to the overall user experience.

Easy-to-use, enticing software stems from how natural and intuitive it flows with each click, how easy it is to learn, how well the functionality fits with the priority activities, its appeal, and how reliable it is when you're doing the work. Our whole experience creates one perception that either encourages or thwarts our interest and success in using it again - and again.


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