We must build IT systems like we do skyscrapers and bridges
Mark Kobayashi-Hillary speaks to Electronic Ink CEO Harold Hambrose about how essential good software design is to an organisation's success - and what we must change to get it right.
Do you remember the shocking news from October this year about a Northwest Airlines flight where the pilots apparently fell asleep and overshot their destination by hundreds of miles, before waking and taking control?
They safely landed the plane but an immediate investigation was launched to find out what happened.
Being a frequent flyer myself, I'd hastily chosen to forget about this story until I had lunch recently with Harold Hambrose, CEO of design firm Electronic Ink.
We met on the fringes of a conference in London because I wanted to discuss Hambrose's book about software design, Wrench in the System (Wiley 2009). The book explores the idea that poor design actually sabotages business software and makes it close to useless.
Hambrose speculated that the Northwest pilots were not sleeping; he claims they were probably grappling with some poorly designed navigation software and lost track of time. It sounds plausible and somewhat more comforting than merely snoozing pilots - but with the investigation ongoing we can only guess at what really happened.
Software design may have played a key role for those pilots that day. But I asked Hambrose how design fits into the world of technology for the rest of us.
He explained: "There are many major systems that are engineering marvels but design failures. It's indicative of technology in general and how it has developed. Look back at something like the early automobiles - they were so dangerous, you were taking your life in your hands when driving one. We are kind of at that stage still with a lot of the software systems we use, still stumbling along."
I asked him what he thought of the success of Salesforce.com - because it's such a major subversion of the IT department, with users paying for their own systems with their own budget.
He said: "What's cool about human beings is that they will find the easiest path. If it's too difficult, they will work around it. The great thing about Salesforce.com is that they recognise training is not an option. You want to send your sales people on a course teaching them to sell better, not how to use the CRM software tools."
But these days everyone is designing software as a service (SaaS) and cloud-based products, so it must be a lot easier to incorporate good design into those systems. At least a lot easier than it used to be when software was shrink-wrapped and installed locally. Right?
Hambrose said: "Well Cloud, SaaS and virtualisation are important. I've seen people reading the books and saying, 'Yes we have solved the usability problem because we are now going to deliver our products inside a web browser'. That doesn't automatically fix anything. You have the same cast of characters doing the same thing but inside what they perceive as an innovative environment. That doesn't make it an attractive product."
Design before build
During our lunch, Hambrose described to me how modern buildings require the input of architects, psychologists, anthropologists and designers before the first brick is laid. This is all to ensure the building is not just functional but works in a way that makes the users comfortable and even happy.
I asked: Why don't we build enterprise software like that?
He said: "We do. I've got a hundred people doing it but it's still really new. The engineers still own the keys to the kingdom, sometimes even to the point at which the business comes second. Slowly we are getting to the point where it is now obvious to people that if we are really going to leverage on engineering advancements, then we need to employ the disciplines that have made systems work better in other industries."
Thanks, consumer tech
Then Hambrose made what I consider to be a key point about enterprise systems and why users are running out of patience. "It's really thanks to Facebook and online banking. People go into work in the morning and look at their enterprise software and ask difficult questions like 'Hey, I can't even enter my time on this system but I can go home and balance my stock portfolio online,'" he said.
To me this is one of the fundamental gripes around enterprise systems. Why are they just so dated when we have all this innovative stuff available on the web?
I used to work in a bank and the traders would forever be downloading and installing their own applications - tools that worked better than the ones the company was giving them.
What could the IT team do? Every attempt to lock down the desktop was met with the traders reminding anyone who would listen that they were a profit centre and everyone else was there to support them.
All of which led me back to speaking to Hambrose about the real world - the one mired in recession. What role does good design play when so many businesses are just trying to survive this economic downturn?
He said: "Over the last couple of years, design has been tied much closer to survival. CIOs are thinking, 'I bought the $300m system and no one is using it. How do I maintain some credibility?' If people don't have any more budget to buy stuff but they want to get their existing systems to work better, they can work with designers to change and improve what they have."
Hambrose told me he has had a few calls from CIOs recently, where they want to talk about the design of a new system before the software team has even been called in.
He said it's the first time this has started happening - and I can believe it. Perhaps what it really means is that the people who commission large software systems are finally calling in the architect before the builder.
Mark Kobayashi-Hillary is a blogger who sometimes writes books, including Who Moved my Job? and the forthcoming Punch Above Your Weight.