I’ve always enjoyed the comic strip, “Wizard of Id,” which is set in medieval times. Its creators died in 2008, but their descendants have kept the strip current for today’s Internet age (see bit.ly/1d7eIYK). Peasants (known, of course, as Idiots) rampage through the town waving signs that read, “The king is a fink!” Figure 1 shows the king’s response.
Figure 1 Avon’s management was slow to recognize unrest in the ranks.(Reprinted with permission of John Hart Studios Inc.)
That same scenario is now exploding in the field of enterprise software. Last December, Avon (the makeup guys) pulled the plug on a new version of their order management software based on SAP. The Wall Street Journal in December reported the company’s sales force of independent reps “found the new system so burdensome and disruptive to their daily routine that many left Avon.”
A spokesman for SAP was later quoted saying that Avon’s order management system “is working as designed, despite any issues with the implementation of this project.”
Really? That means unless Avon’s goal was to reduce its workforce through bad software instead of layoffs, the company implemented a terrible design. And that weasel spokesman (but, like Mark Twain, I repeat myself) should read my column about the word “issue.” (See msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/ff955613.)
As smoking in public was once common, it was once common to force users to contort themselves into five-dimensional hyperpretzels to match their software—to become “computer literate,” in the term of that day. UX guru Alan Cooper wrote that a computer literate user is one who “has been hurt so often that the scar tissue is so thick that he no longer feels the pain.” Users accepted this as the price of getting their computing jobs done. That attitude doesn’t cut it anymore.
Success in consumer-sector software and hardware has been driven by usability for seven years now, since the first Apple iPhone. But it’s taken much longer for that requirement to cross over into the enterprise sector. The whole bring-your-own-device movement arose from early adopter iPhone and iPad users wanting their enterprise software to work as easily as their consumer apps. And now, like the Wizard’s newspaper pagemate Popeye the Sailor, enterprise users have stood up and roared, “That’s all I can stands! I can’t stands no more!” (See bit.ly/1a7BiWZ.)
You’d think that enterprise developers by now would’ve realized the importance of usability, as they directly benefit from greater user productivity, fewer catastrophic errors, and lower training and support costs. But the strongest bastions of bad usability are places where users are locked in and can’t choose. Cormac Herley of Microsoft Research, investigating the burden security policies place on users, found them highest not where data was most sensitive, but rather in captive situations, especially governments and universities, where the enterprise didn’t suffer the market consequences of its bad usability (see bit.ly/1eK6Dhu). Avon is the tipping point where this phenomenon starts to change.
Whether you’re dealing with the enterprise or consumer sector, UX design has to happen before anything else can. To meet today’s standard of care, you can’t wait until your program works and then throw it over the fence for the decorators to pretty up. The decorators can round off the corners of the File Open/Save dialog box and give it nice color gradients. But the UX interaction designer determines whether to make the user save documents manually (a la Word), or implement automatic saving (a la OneNote). That choice very much dictates the code to write. So UX design has to come first. And with Avon, clearly, it didn’t.
That needs to change. As Steve Rosenbush wrote in his CIO Journal blog on wsj.com: “People who are accustomed to using simple, well-designed applications in their personal lives have no patience for disappointing technology at work.” Amen.
And so, my friends, when you work on your enterprise apps, you had better start paying attention to usability. Because the enterprise-sector peasants are indeed revolting. And there’s no stopping them. If your boss won’t let you put UX first, ask him how he feels about wearing tar and feathers.
David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.
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