Software design cannot be neglected

Companies tend to put design as low priority when developing software due to time, resource constraints, but this is "irresponsible" and might result in negative user experience, watchers warn.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Software design has taken a backseat in recent times, particularly with enterprise software, due to compatibility and time-to-market pressures. However, industry watchers say companies should focus on design as a differentiator to improve usability and uptake of their software.

Ray Wang, principal analyst and CEO of Constellation Research, pointed out that there has been a lack of continued investment in software design by companies. This is particularly so within the enterprise space, as much of the development focus is on ensuring backend compatibility with other existing systems, he said.

This neglect of the design element is "irresponsible", he added, saying that it impacts overall user adoption.

Another reason for the lack of design focus is because of limited resources, manpower and time-to-market pressures, said professor David Rosenblum, computer science department, School of Computing (SOC) in National University of Singapore (NUS).

Startups, especially, will face these concerns in competing with more established vendors, he added. It is quite common for the smaller companies to neglect quality assurance and produce low-quality software despite the promise of innovative design in their initial ideas.

Zhao Shendong, a human computer interaction (HCI) researcher at the computer science department in NUS's School of Computing, pointed to the lack of emphasis on usability and HCI training in local schools as another reason for software design to be placed on the backburner.

This compromise on design is ultimately detrimental to the product, and the company selling it. "If the usability of a piece of software is poor, it will largely affect the user experience of the final product even if it was well made in other aspects," he said.

Wang called on companies to view software design as a competitive differentiator. "It's more than pretty screens now. It's about thinking how people engage with technology," he said.

Great design helps create a defensible competitive advantage and influences preferential behaviors in the value chain, the analyst stated. It would help if vendors pushed the envelope and introduce "experiential designs", too, given today's rapid commoditization of products and shrinking lifecycle times, he added.

Customer relationship management (CRM) vendor Salesforce.com has a dedicated user experience team that is responsible for making sure its software features are always innovative and easy to use, understand, and pick up, according to Dave King, its director of product marketing, revealed that the company. This team focuses on user research, interaction and visual designs, and usability testing, he said.

King explained that it is important to create new business applications that are as easy to use and navigate as Amazon.com's online site so as to give employees the user experience that they are already familiar with.

Ally architecture with aesthetics
Rosenblum pointed out that software design remains an ad hoc creative process within companies and there are very few established principles available that would predictably lead to high quality software.

Given this situation, the "surest way" for software companies to achieve a high level of design standard is to "grow" a batch of great designers. This means companies need to identify, cultivate and retain the best designers who have developed a keen understanding of the nature and pitfalls of software design, he said.

There should also be a chief architect whose main responsibility would be to ensure the conceptual integrity of a software's design across the span of its lifetime, he said.

Zhao similarly stressed the need for software architecture and engineering to work in tandem with design, and it would be most useful when companies can hire a software designer who also understands the engineering process.

One example of this is "Apple's former CEO Steve Jobs, who had a great taste in design and understood how engineering can affect the quality of software products, the NUS researcher said.

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