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Usability as a criteria for judging internal software solutions is not only overlooked but often undervalued when compared to one of its big sisters, so called ‘cost reducing features’.

With the penetration of enterprise software throughout businesses all over the world, will we as end users ever experience user friendly internal software, to the levels to which we are accustomed with the latest ‘user centered’ web applications?

At what stage will usability be one of the most important success factors when internal software systems (intranets, ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems, content management systems) are being developed or purchased?

This is a question which seems certain to remain un-answered for a long time to come. Transforming well established, enterprise level software systems into usable, efficient user experiences isn’t something that can be achieved by simply conducting some heuristic evaluations, user testing and maybe some eye-tracking, followed up by some user interface changes.

When you have software solutions that are deployed in diverse businesses across the world, each with their own specific business requirements, having a one size fits all type approach (in the main) is always going to cause usability barriers for some users.

This isn’t being critical of any one provider or the software market as a whole, I am simply assessing the state of the software industry when it comes to user experience and considering how can we as end users begin experiencing the types of intuitive, intelligent and personalised experiences that we are getting in User Centered Designed web applications and desktop applications.

Ask yourself this - when you have being using internal software systems, how often have you found yourself thinking any of the following:

  • The software is making my job harder
  • The software is trying to be too clever
  • The software is preventing me from doing what I need to do
  • There are large parts of this software that I would never use
  • If only I was able to do xxxxxxxxxx (please insert whichever types of functionality or system features which aren’t currently availablThere must be a more efficient way for me to do this
  • I waste alot of time using the software in the way I am forced to
  • Where is the training manual!


In one respect our mentality as humans is to just get on with things and accept that what we are using isn’t enjoyable or user friendly, that this is what is in front of us so we will have to get used to it. From company intranets to business process management tools, we are used to seeing feature rich software that fails to provide us with a usable experience, one in which our wants and needs aren’t properly addressed.

Industry Analysis

A recent article published in UX, the Usability Professionals’ Association magazine, describes the struggle that usability professionals have when trying to convince senior IT management of the importance of usability and the user experience on the success when either developing internal software or when purchasing enterprise software from external companies.

There are already large resources dedicated to selling in the business benefits and Return-On-Investment of usability when planning to develop web applications and e-commerce solutions, so I won’t go into that now.

What I would like to touch on is some further industry insights from the UX article, written by Jerrod Larson, a usability engineer at a US aerospace company, where he conducts user research and design for various intranet and software applications.

In his research of some of the worlds largest technology research firms (such as Gartner, Forrester Research, Jupiter Research) the evaluations and comparisons of information technology products inadequately factor in usability. This explains why large, sophisticated organisations continue to purchase and implement difficult to use software, and why many software companies do not appear to pay enough attention to usability in the development of their products.

How can businesses make their existing internal systems more usable

It is critical that businesses create and test Key Performance Indicators and specific usability metrics, such as:

  • task completion rates
  • time to complete a process
  • amount of technical support time used
  • training costs for new starters


Rather than focusing on what may be termed ‘cost reducing features’ a business should be assessing how their actual employees use and interact with their internal software system.

From here businesses can assess the scope of flexibility for making improvements to their existing systems, although for some the software may in fact make implementing improved user interfaces purely a pipedream.

What about businesses with no existing enterprise system

These businesses, much like smaller businesses competing against the markets bigger players, are in fact in a potentially stronger position to exercise agility for change by embracing usable software. Instead of following the traditional path of bringing in consultants to assess their business needs, and then recommending a range of well established, feature rich solutions (as described in the industry analysis above), they can look at actually implementing usable internal systems. For the potential of this approach to be maximised a User Centered Design approach would need to be followed, but the long term benefits of this are both well documented and proven to provide significant ROI improvements.

Engaging with end users shouldn’t be a pipedream

Across industries, with the focus on the likes of lean manufacturing, process efficiency, reducing customer service and technical support calls and reducing waste within organisations, businesses must engage with end users of their internal business systems.

The top down approach of implementing new software and getting users to modify their expectations and businesses to modify their business processes to fit with the new software needs to be replaced by a more personal, user driven approach. It is only by adopting this approach that systems can be developed which cater for specific user requirements which would never be uncovered in a board meeting or management review.

For the benefits of us all as end users lets hope usable internal systems can be realised.

Paul Rouke
User Experience Director
PRWD
0161 918 6729

 

Paul Rouke

Published 28 October, 2008 by Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke is Founder & CEO at PRWD, author and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up with him on LinkedIn.

37 more posts from this author

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