It's not what the software does. It's what the user does.
Image © Hugh McLeod – 2007.

I’m posting this in a (fairly short) lunch break, so it may not be as eloquent as it should be…

I read my friend, Susan‘s take on the current “enterprise software should be sexy” heat that’s running today. Started by Scoble, who quite reasonably asked:

Any of you have any ideas on how to make business software sexy?

A number of the Enterprise Irregulars and others have weighed into the debate, including Nick Carr (whose position I rather like, even if I don’t necessarily completely agree with his argument), Michael Krigsman in two posts (1, 2), Dave Snowden (who has some great things to say), Dennis Howlett (who I think is fence sitting a little) and Vinnie Mirchandani.

Personally, my take is that enterprise applications should be all of:

  • functional – that is, they should do the job they were built to do
  • reliable – that is, they should do the job well, and consistently
  • sexy – that is, visually pleasing, usable and user-centric, “2.0” or whatever you want to call it

The third point above, to my mind, is one of the great failings of enterprise software. I have worked on several client sites where major enterprise tools such as Lotus Notes, SAP and Siebel (and others, but these are the biggies) have been implemented to deal with significant and valuable parts of business. To an instance, not one of those presented a great (or even good) user experience. Instead, users were faced with:

  • confusing, cluttered interfaces with too much content on a page or view
  • task and process flows that represented business views of how the work was done rather than how the users actually did the work
  • layouts where users were forced to jump erratically between elements and even applications in order to get a task done
  • flows where it was actually not possible to complete a task due to bad design
  • information architectures that failed to recognise either the business or the users and instead imposed some arbitrary “out of the box” set of navigation or flow rules

Frankly, none of this is necessary. Instead, enterprise applications should have:

  • simple, user-focussed interfaces
  • process flows that represent the way users need to work while also fulfulling business needs on the back end
  • layouts that have straightforward process flows that lead to task completion
  • flows that actually complete tasks in a single run
  • IA that matches user and business needs

On top of those considerations, enterprise tools should also:

  • facilitate and broker interconnectedness between users
  • make it easy for users to share knowledge and information about the application and the data held in it
  • ensure that users can connect inside and outside the wall with those whose data is being used

Putting my IA hat on, if information architecture and user experience experts had been, or were allowed to be involved at an early stage in the projects, chances are the user experience could have been “sexy”. Robert could have a better answer to his question and the current snarkfest wouldn’t even be a consideration. Instead, we’d all we working together hammering our project offices and senior management with all the good reasons that exist to have a strategic, user centered approach to software design right from the get go (which is what I argued in my presentation at OzIA this year).

Over to you. I’d love to hear your thoughts.