Interfaces for business software (lessons from working on an e-commerce platform)

A decade ago when I ran web agency Splandigo with a couple of associates, I was in charge of building or maintaining software for the company. Most of the design work went to the front-end of sites, and it’s only late in the game that we started investing in “skinning” our content management system a little bit.

What mattered was the functionality, and the usability of the interfaces, such a vital topic for consumer-facing elements, became a much lower priority. We did give it some thought and worked on it, but it never received anywhere near the same amount of investment or attention.

We often worked on customizing an interface so it was really specialized for the task at hand, i.e. maybe ugly, but extremely clear for its operators because it supports exactly what they’re supposed to do, and maps to their mental model of their work.

Also, because you have so few users and they don’t have a choice whether to use the system or not, you can address the poor usability of an interface through training and documentation. This is increasingly uncommon in consumer-facing services, but remains standard in much of business software, with a few exceptions.

I often rant about Lotus Notes, IBM’s email, calendar, and bureaucracy-support platform, because its interface is riddled with confusing and impractical idiosyncrasies, poorly abstracted or explained technical details, and also because the level of polish of the interface is nowhere near as good as its mass-market competitors. Yet IBM is a huge, and hugely successful business software and consulting company.

SAP, an immensely successful competitor of IBM, is dubbed Systems Against People by some of its users, who find its interface daunting and error-prone, its flexibility severely limited, and find little joy in interacting with it. In both cases, poor implementation may be to blame, but consumer-inspired models are clearly superior.

But both of these companies, and all of their competitors, produce software its users are forced to use.

Having the choice between many options, consumers can afford to be fickle and shop around until they find a service they like. As a result, immense investments are made into creating moments of joy in using those services. Don’t like Facebook’s privacy issues? Switch to Path. Can’t be bothered with Flickr’s focus on the desktop? Jump ship to Instagram. Usability is a very large factor in the success of those services.

Users of business software are not usually consulted in the selection of that business software, the choice is made by the software’s maintainers instead. As long as a program’s goals are met (i.e. can we actually manage our product catalog online with this e-commerce platform?), the CTO’s job is done. The satisfaction of the operator is irrelevant, and therefore nobody bothers to design for it.

I believe there’s a business opportunity here. Of course, training has a hard cost, and while it’s hard to quantify accurately, I am convinced there’s a cost to user frustration, in productivity and good will.

But there’s an even more powerful element: the learning gap. When you divorce the purpose from the gesture, when you increase the distance between your action and its consequences, learning can’t happen. You are still capable of performing the action (with enough training and sense of duty, we’ll perform the most meaningless, most intricate acts), but you’ll never get any better at it, nor will you ever contribute to the field.

Practically: if the tool with which I create a promotion does not offer me a clear view of that promotion’s performance, I’m going to have to go seek that information out myself. I’ll probably do it anyway because it’s my job and I’ve been trained, but my work is clearly less efficient, and it limits opportunities for implicit learning.

If the platform isn’t even trying to learn from its users but just forces itself on them, it means the collective knowledge that is being built up by all the operators carrying out their tasks every day is being left on the table.

And the more esoteric the platform, the fewer chances it has to create joy for its operators. And that’s too bad because joy for the company’s staff is a powerful raw material to foster more effective work and increase consumer satisfaction.

So here are a couple of principles I’ll be pursuing here at ASICS for our e-commerce project over the next few months, as we are choosing a platform:

  • first, pick a partner that understands the issue, and is committed to tackling it
  • group tools around tasks, and align tasks with overall program goals, to encourage effective activity
  • embed performance testing and measurement into operational tools, to make learning constant and easy
  • give users the ability to change their environment and make their own tools, but still offer great defaults
  • involve operators, observe them, iterate and optimize, just as we would for consumer-facing systems

And I want to call out Demandware for having identified the issue and being in the process of addressing it (kudos!), and Hybris for having started as well. The other guys out there, I think you’re letting your clients leave money on the table.

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