I’ve watched Thomas Otter’s design thinking evolve over time. For anyone interested in how software gets into end users’ hands, it is worth dipping into his many posts on the topic. In Steering wheels and application UIs he seems to have reached a personal tipping point when he acknowledges that business application user interfaces are often too complicated. Using the metaphorical comparison of the race car steering wheel and that of a vintage model, Thomas says:
The problem with a lot of business application software is that it has as many buttons and switches as the example above, but most users would be better of with the Amilcar layout. Most users just want to get in and drive. It is only when you really get to know your user that you can actually design something that works for them.
Yay! But if only it was that simple.
When we were building out ESME, we had a design framework and a usability specialist in tow but even then, most of the team would agree that the final outcome was far from ideal. I’ve noticed for instance that Yammer has a much nicer and approachable interface. We’re going back to the drawing board.
In the last six months, I’ve come to the conclusion that developers are far better at solving business problems than the business side of the house gives them credit. But…as engineers, they’re not the best when it comes to designing the final product. Reducing complexity to something that is brain dead easy to use is a real art where less really is more.
As we move forward and draw lessons from the relatively simple web service style applications that are emerging, I sense the business software industry will have to pay way more attention to design than it does today. Consider for example Wesabe’s approach to budgeting.
Budgeting — and budgeting software — can be completely overwhelming. You finally decide to get your finances in order, you sit down to learn how, and the next thing you know you’re being asked to give a precise, to-the-penny guess for your lunch spending for each of the next 12 months…
Wesabe has long had a feature called “spending targets” to help you do hot spot budgeting. It has, though, been one of our best-kept secrets. Finding the feature (which was hidden in a drop-down menu on the spending summary page) was nearly impossible, and it was subtle enough in the interface that getting updates and keeping on track was tough.
Today, we changed all that, and made targets a ton easier and a lot more visible.
Wesabe has taken the problem and pared it back to what it means for the individual or small business and re-thought not only the process elements but the way they are presented. When I look at Xero, I can’t help but admire the way that company has worked hard to make accounting a pleasure rather than a drudge.
At a time when users have more choice and are being offered new ways of consuming software, it leaves me wondering how the incumbent players will approach the problem. I got a glimpse of that at Convergence, Microsoft’s user conference. Check out this video with Jan Sillemann. But where else is design thinking being implemented as a core requirement? SAP is certainly giving this attention. But elsewhere?
Thomas’s personal quest leads me to believe that design is not only a core requirement in today’s software development but a journey where change is iterated but led by the customer’s desires and needs. That cannot be something imposed by engineers but conducted as part of a genuine partnership between the ‘make’ people and end users.
Disclosure: Xero sponsors this site