People have been finding workarounds for poorly designed systems for many years.  Although both the technology and the workarounds have become more sophisticated, the problem, and its solution, remains the same.

Many years ago, before web-based interfaces, we were asked to investigate why an online ordering system wasn’t delivering the promised productivity benefits.  Our research, which involved videoing staff dealing with telephone orders and then interviewing them about the process, soon revealed the problem.

The system used a number of highly structured forms with fields which had to be completed in a pre-defined order. The problem was, this order made no sense to the customers. Some staff forced the customers to answer in the specified order, which took time and irritated the customers. Others developed a ‘workaround’ where they:

  • spoke to the customers
  • noted down the answers on a piece of paper
  • entered the data off-line.

The customers were happier, but it was more work for the staff, and occasionally they had to phone a customer back to say that something was out of stock. The fundamental problem was that the information architecture made sense to the software developer, but not to the customers.

We recently came across a system where technology had been applied to this same problem. Sadly, all that had happened was that the operator:

  • took a screen shot
  • spoke to the customer and noted their requirements in Windows Paint
  • placed the screen shot alongside the transaction screen and entered the data later.

The fundamental problem remained that the information architecture did not match the real world experience of the customer. 

This recent example was particularly disappointing because it was a travel booking application where real time feedback is critical to the design of successful systems. Rather than having the users apply a technology ‘band-aid’ to a creaking system, the developers should have followed a user centred design process to ensure that the information architecture matched the complexities of the travel world. 

Increasingly, our clients recognise the business value of applying the user centred design approach right from the beginning. We have just completed a usability project for Amadeus (case study) where we were able to create wireframes and screen designs which reflected the unique world of air travel reservation systems.  They allowed the operators to interact with the customers in a natural and apparently unconstrained manner.
Now that really is technology striking back!