Business application UIs matter...to users

Last week I posted a link from a blog by Khoi Vinh of the New York Times about design to the Irregulars Google Group. The basic premise of Khoi's post is that enterprise apps suck in large measure because the UIs are horrible:Enterprise software, it can hardly be debated, is pretty bad stuff.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Last week I posted a link from a blog by Khoi Vinh of the New York Times about design to the Irregulars Google Group. The basic premise of Khoi's post is that enterprise apps suck in large measure because the UIs are horrible:

Enterprise software, it can hardly be debated, is pretty bad stuff. The high-dollar applications that businesses use to run their internal operations (everything that falls under human resources, typically, but also accounting, communications and, at one time or another, just about everything else) are some of the least friendly, most difficult systems ever committed to code.

There's nothing new in this assertion but it sparked an interesting discussion. In one corner we have the likes of Jason at 37 Signals who thinks:

The people who buy enterprise software aren’t the people who use enterprise software. That’s where the disconnect begins. And it pulls and pulls and pulls until the user experience is split from the buying experience so severely that the software vendors are building for the buyers, not the users. The experience takes a back seat to the feature list, future promises, and buzz words.

The 80+ comments provide insight into the depth of feeling among those who use enterprise apps about just how bad the experience can be. On his own blog, Ben Poole offers some excellent examples:

When I think of “enterprise software” I think of stuff that should be (a) resilient (i.e. clustered or at least employs some kind of decent fail-over), (b) scaleable and (c) reliable in the hands of users. Yet it is extraordinary how so many “enterprise” packages fail on one or all counts. Some examples (with no links! Bah, what a grumpy old man):

  • A web CMS that required a mind-blowing amount of costly software to do everything required in terms of web presentation—take a bow Interwoven.
  • A Documentum-based web publishing system that can’t be clustered and often falls over distributing content for a handful of small-scale static websites.
  • A SAP-based financial system that has the worst off-line client I’ve ever seen, both in terms of reliability and general user experience (Notes 4.6 is pretty as a picture compared with this thing)
  • An integrated questionnaire system that took over two years to develop using best of breed technologies, yet still didn’t do everything the original (Notes-based) system did

In the reality check camp we have Vinnie Mirchandani who said in our group:

I find most UI discussions so removed from overall goals, for corporate IT and productivity...we keep seeking the universal UI. Traders, sales people, shop floor employees, accountants, field engineers - cannot use a universal user interface.

We are entering an age of UI chaos...look at UI (and OS and other elements) proliferation on PDAs...by some estimates we have 4,000 types of devices there...most enterprise software vendors I know are struggling with which families (Blackberry etc) to support...

The reality for the last 25 plus years is there has been an increasing proportion of machine to machine, now device (RFID etc) to machine communication etc...

Most CFOs don't want the prettiest UI for their accountants, they want the most efficient. They want to squeeze closing cycles down. Most VP of Logistics want volumes of customer and shipment data...frankly user entered data for them is suspect.

So UI accounts for a shrinking source of corporate data and is increasingly fragmented...to me ease of customization of UI is far better for vendors to deliver than pretty ones...The best UI to me is one that requires no end user training or calls to the help desk...like Google or amazon...

Vinnie subsequently parsed these thoughts into a post entitled UI...PHUI. I'll pick up on three points. First, users don't want a universal UI, at least not for their desktop or browser based applications. They want what works for them. That's why, when fellow Irregular Thomas Otter shot back at me in a Tweet:

Since when were you a UI expert too?

I responded with: I'm not but I know what I like.

Users would like something prettier than what they get right now. The universal 'gray/blue' themes that are reminiscent of Windows 95 can hardly be considered attractive. That's not the same as concluding that all users want Beatrix Potter colors or rounded corners as was all the rage in 2005-6. But we should not lose sight of the fact the IT industry is essentially a fashion game.

Users also want stuff that's err...usable. I was fascinated by the 'user experience' tour at this year's Microsoft Convergence conference held in Copenhagen. Microsoft, for all its ills, has realized that true application lock in comes when users love the apps they use. It explains why Mac fans are often fanatical in their defense of their hardware, even when Apple seems to dump on them. The point about love is that it includes a requirement for forgiveness and Apple gets that in spades. Microsoft does not.

Microsoft is trying to tap into the emotional connections between people and applications as they develop new UIs for their Dynamics business apps. At the conference, I saw people experimenting with new ways of visualizing and creating process flow maps that looked intuitive and attractive. The problem of course is that people have an infinite variety of preferences. Just how does a vendor solve that issue?

The second point concerns mobile devices. At a recent visit to the London Googleplex, the team that developed Google's mobile Checkout shopping client said it took them over a year to sift through all the OS and mobile browser variants before they'd covered the bulk of the market. They had to physically test against hundreds of devices. How wasteful is that? And out of date the moment a new cell phone comes to market.

Fact is the mobile industry has taken the insane decision to avoid developing or deploying a standards based mobile browser. Bad as they may be, the major apps vendors should sit down with Nokia, Sony Ericsson, RIM and other major players and give them an object lesson in the basics of usability.

Finally, I'm not convinced Vinnie is correct in talking about a diminishing data universe. At least not from an end user's perspective. If anything, I see users wanting to take business decisions based on increasingly complex sets of data. A good part of that complexity arises out of wrestling with unstructured data along with internally produced information. As one Microsoft product manager said to me: "There's been very few genuine advances in UI design in the last 15 years but even if we had, we're at risk of drowning in our own complexity." Nowhere is this better illustrated than in this video produced by SAPs Imagineering unit and to which Craig Cmehil drew my attention.

The video shows a scenario where a buyer has to source alternative suppliers. It is played out using a variety of applications that churn out both structured and unstructured data. The delivered result provides an elegant solution but as the video played, I couldn't help but feel increasingly uneasy about the amount of training required to become productive. There's the rub.

It is all very well for people (and I include myself) to pontificate that the next generation of users will come with a FaceBook/MySpace mindset and therefore the apps vendors better shape up but consider this. Add in more than a handful of applications and FaceBook becomes incredibly messy. (see screen above) Imagine what it must be like trying to figure out how to get something as complex as the SAP scenario shown in the video to look acceptable?

While the apps slammers have a point, there is a world of a difference between having applications that do one thing well and running your business on a suite of applications. That's why we end up with what I call user generated kludges of the kind Zoli Erdos describes in a post entitled: Desktopized Web-Applications are a Great Convenience. The problem with Zoli's approach is that most users are not as sophisticated in their understanding of applications. Maybe the next-gen users will be more tech savvy and find their own solutions. That's what marketers and social media consultants like Steve Rubel think:

The silent adoption web applications in the enterprise will strike directly at the heart of corporations like cloud to ground lightning. IT managers who can surf into the storm waves will gain considerable competitive advantage. The key is to embrace change - or, as one Googler suggest, to give employees choice over control. (This arguably gives small and mid-sized companies a considerable advantage.) Those that crack down on choice, however, may find themselves struggling to keep up with the competition as their workforce becomes more productive, efficient and happy.

It sounds alluring but ultimately unfulfilling. I get the argument for SMEs but for enterprise? I doubt it. End users have been kludging apps for decades. That's not a solution. Kludging breeds another generation of unsatisfied users. Surely as an industry we can do better? Another Irregular Jason Corsello thinks we can and should:

 ...innovation to me isn’t necessarily finding that next breakthrough, but delivering incremental functionality (ie a Microsoft Outlook plugin) that advances the way people use the application.

I conclude with three quotes that give a flavor of the difficulty in resolving UI issues and the potential consequences. The first is from Mike Krigsman who posted: Complexity sucks...simplicity rocks, but who also said to me in a Skype conversation: "Bad UI is the handmaiden of project failure." Next up is Euan Semple, who in December 2006 said:

Dave Snowden was right when he said that you can’t manage knowledge but you can create a knowledge ecology.

I can't put my finger in what it is - the graphics, the language used or the intentions behind the software but I rarely get this feeling from Microsoft stuff especially not SharePoint. They are too good at creating sterile environments run by control freaks who hate messiness, consider conversations unprofessional and rarely understand the true pulse of their organisations.

This stuff may be seen as "business-like" at the moment but I don't believe it will be what business is like in the future.

Last is a quote from a conversation I had with Jakob Nielsen, director of user experience at Microsoft Dynamics. "There's a curious paradox about design simplicity - it isn't that simple."

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