I'm just back from Adobe's partner conference in Amsterdam, where George Neill, Lead Experience Architect at Adobe Consulting, shows us this great slide depicting a woman processing mortgage applications. She has a PC on her desk which is running her organisation's app for managing mortgage applications. However, around here desk are multiple signs of usability failure. On her left, a paper calendar with names and phone numbers handwritten onto deadline days. On her right, an old-fashioned paper roll calculator. In front of her, a pile of paper forms colour coded with post-it notes. The app, Neill notes, should be handling all these tasks, but one glance at the user's working process is sufficient to expose its poor design.
All good stuff. The next thing we see is a nice application built with an Adobe Flex front-end and an Adobe LiveCycle back-end, with the not-so-subtle implication that these user-experience (UX) focused tools will help us create applications that fix this kind of design failure. There's also talk here at Adobe's partner conference of a new era in software built on customer experience, and how consumer technology from iPhone to Facebook and Twitter is raising expectations when it comes to business applications. There are even a few digs at developers, the people who, it is alleged, hate it when requirements change and who develop software geared towards the IT system which which it integrates, rather than towards users.
There is truth in all of this, but I'm cautious. It is easy to find a poor application and poke fun at it, but the idea of observing users and creating applications that improve their productivity is not a new one, and it is not necessary to use Adobe's stuff in order to do good software design. There are even times when it gets in the way. I recall spending time looking for a campsite on the web, for a holiday, and how it was in general the simple HTML sites rather than the "rich" Flash-driven ones that were easier to navigate. Admittedly the average campsite does not create web applications to Enterprise standard, but the underlying point is that there is a case for simple as well as a case for rich. Never forget "skip the intro".
The key question here: how do we define excellence in user experience? Let me state the obvious for the moment.
Applications that have functional deficiencies will not be rescued by any amount of eye candy or beautiful state transitions; and if the user is surrounded by post-it notes and antique calculators I'd suggest that this is not primarily a UX issue, unless we strip all meaning from the term and use it for every aspect of software design, features and performance.
Second, software can deliver a good UX without necessarily having gorgeous graphics and multimedia. As a business software user, I value applications that let me accomplish tasks quickly and easily. Question: think of a web application that changed the world, partly thanks to superb UX? Answer: Google search. Question: how much PhotoShop and Flash was used in designing the fantastic Google home page?
The case for user-centric software design is irrefutable; but we need rigour when it comes to working out what that means and how to achieve it. I like this comment which I found in an 2004 paper by Larry Constantine:
User-centered design is a good idea in need of improvement. The needed improvement is found in practices that put uses rather than users at the center of design and in changing the prime objective from enhancing user experience to enhancing user performance.
UP rather than UX resonates with me. It also reminds me of Kathy Sierra's mantra: creating passionate users. If the current rush towards UX puts the focus there, I am all in favour. If it means newly empowered designers imposing some sort of visual or multimedia experience on us whether we like it or not, count me out.
The iPad has just launched in the UK, queues are long, stock is short, and it is yet another successful new product from Apple. The iPad has frustrations, like no Adobe Flash support for web browsing, no Java, no printing, and the general sense that you do things the Apple way or not at all. Still, users love it and are willing to pay for it, and in the end that is what matters.
Does this shiny gadget have any relevance to the more humdrum world of business IT? I think it does, especially when taken together with other factors. Here's a remark from Apple CEO Steve Jobs from an informal email conversation with Ryan Tate:
The times they are a changin', and some traditional PC folks feel like their world is slipping away. It is.
Yes, it's a Bob Dylan reference; read the entire thread to see why. Jobs is marketing his company's stuff, of course, but a few days later the stock market put some solid evidence behind his claim. Apple's market capitalisation surpassed that of Microsoft for the first time since 1989. Microsoft remains more profitable; but the figures reflect the market's judgment that Apple has better prospects for growth.
Another sign of change comes from one of Microsoft's most important partners, HP. At the end of April it acquired Palm, and with it the WebOS operating system for mobile devices. Whether HP can make a success of WebOS is uncertain; it will not be easy going up against Apple and Google Android. What is more significant is the implication that HP has finally lost faith in Microsoft's ability to get it right in mobile.
Despite some positive buzz around Windows Phone 7, Microsoft did not help its case when it announced a major reshuffle in its Entertainment and Devices division on May 25th. This follows the bewildering launch of the Kin phone - bewildering because it seems right out on its own in terms of strategy - complete with typical Microsoft flaws according to this thoughtful review:
But the obtuseness of this user experience doesn't stop with the Spot -- it permeates the entire interface as though decisions about how things should work were made almost arbitrarily, without anyone stopping to test them in the real world. The Twitter implementation is a great example of that. You can add your Twitter account to the phone and see updates from people you follow, and you can update your status from the top of the Loop... but that's all you can do. You can't retweet something, you can't send a direct message, you can't go to single person's feed to see all their updates, and you can't even open a link in a Twitter message from the Loop!
Windows Phone 7 will have to be much, much better if Microsoft is to claw back any ground in mobile.
I digress. All that matters is that the world is changing, and looking less Microsoft-shaped with each passing day.
In saying that, I don't mean to diminish the excellent work which I see coming out of some parts of Microsoft - Visual Studio 2010, for example - or to ignore the continuing dominance of the company in many areas of business IT. Many companies still standardise on Windows, and Microsoft Office remains the only productivity suite I come across in work.
All true, but the two great IT trends of today are not centred on Windows and Office. One is mobile, the other is cloud computing; and of course there is synergy between them. Apple's iPad is a further advance for mobile, and will drive increasing mobile data usage and increasing demand both for iPad/iPhone applications and for web applications that work well on those devices.