March 2017 — As consumers, we’ve all experienced the joy of browser-based, easy-to-use and beautiful applications made with user interface expertise at the core. At work, however, we’re still grappling with slowly developed, awkward and downright ugly business software. Why?
By Sari Aapola
Whenever new systems are introduced to a wide spectrum of consumers, it is interesting to follow related discussions on social forums such as LinkedIn, Twitter or Hacker News led by designers and critics with alternative user interface solutions. To a lay person, the alternative solutions are often more logical, clearer and, well… better. This experienced community can offer so much input to software creators and is completely underutilized.
Pressure is mounting to ‘design smarter’ as consumers have access to an array of well designed, browser-based applications made with agile methods and user interface expertise. But we’re still grappling with slowly developed, somewhat cumbersome and visually ugly business software. There’s a lack of the polish that we see with pure consumer products. Why is this?
I’ve worked in technology marketing for 25+ years, and have seen how challenging user interface design can be, whether for a physical device or a piece of software. Lots of opinions are thrown about, and tensions can get high. At Dooap, we develop business software to make the everyday routines of corporate employees easier. As an integral part of our development project, I experienced first-hand what agile development with user experience front and center looks like. What makes it look and feel so good?
Old to new – clumsy to easy
When a new software or feature is created, there’s almost always something old behind it, such as a previous method, structures and terminology agreed upon ages ago, viewpoints and processes that have always been used. I think a good user experience is a result of bringing together two kinds of people: those who have mastered and understand the processes behind it all, and the user interface experts, who are willing to question and improve upon established methods. I believe that blending these two areas of expertise delivers the best of both worlds, resulting in a new, better, richer user experience.
We are focused on creating an excellent user experience from the first steps of development. We define excellence in UX through research and use cases written by and about people who use the software daily. Those users explain their needs and ‘dream software’ to our UX experts, who then create it. This process is repeated to eliminate unnecessary process steps, streamlining the experience and implementing better models.
Exposure to customers
In-house teams are ‘our people’, and it’s great to hear their positive feedback but we are aware that sometimes this might be a little bit biased. That’s why we expose the results of our work to customers early on, and throughout the development cycle. Every time, we learn something new, have a-ha moments, and learn to do things better. The more unfamiliar the market, the more surprises we encounter. But the fun part is that customers seem to like the approach and the opportunity to give feedback, and these meetings are also a great opportunity to build and strengthen customer relationships.
I have always been a believer in customer participation. Still, it was a moment of enlightenment when I read Steve Blank’s “The Four Steps to the Epiphany” and learned about the Lean Startup approach and the Customer Development method, relying on continuous validation of development hypotheses through customer feedback. Here’s a link to a good summarizing blog post about the book by Eric Ries.
Many kinds of graphics competency
We have always believed in the power of the visual, and we have built our visual identity in collaboration with bold designers. That’s why our leading UI designer tests his ideas with the designers of our corporate visual image. In this way, we are also utilizing different types of graphic design expertise. Although our leading UI designer is hugely talented and has brilliant graphic acumen, he still marvels at the useful expertise he can tap into with the company graphics designers. Yes, the product is only one touchpoint, but it is an important component of the brand. No brand marketing can rescue a failure at that touchpoint.
A lot of our work hours are spent looking at poor user interfaces. As software developers, we need to pay more attention to product-level experience when it comes to productivity and corporate tools. It could, if not make our lives longer, at least make them better.