In last month’s contribution, Alister Esam, CEO and founder of two businesses – technology company BoardPacks and social polling network Peepoc – discussed the crucial role of corporate governance in managing and maintaining core business principles. Even before principles however, a business must be grounded in a strong product offering. Functionality alone is no longer enough for today’s consumers and this attitude has now transcended to B2B software products. Technology solutions must deliver a customer-style experience as well as the required level of functionality. How? Don’t make them think!
A revolution is brewing
The truth is users are increasingly turning their back on technologies that fail to deliver tangible, personal benefits. Attitudes have changed fundamentally since the dawn of the iPhone era and, from software developers to IT procurers, the quality of user experience must now take centre stage in every piece of business software. Of course, the origin of software development lies in business applications: they were built with functionality in mind, not usability. People didn’t enjoy using them nor did they expect to – it was just part of their job.
Since the noughties however, the volume of software solutions used in our personal lives has ballooned, and they have proved increasingly intuitive when compared to their business counterparts. When I think of the word “software”, I consider first what is on my phone for personal use: software for photos, for dieting, for making notes, for listening to music, for reading the news, for running, banking, trading shares, looking for houses. All of these apps – and there are hundreds – are amazingly simple to use. What’s more, they conform to a usability standard; people understand certain controls or symbols mean certain things and are used accordingly from app-to-app.
There’s a revolution in how software is being developed and business solutions are playing catch-up. Decision makers are fed-up with feature-rich products that are damaging to efficiency levels. The difference now is they have the first-hand experience of user-friendly software in their personal lives and will no longer tolerate a product that fails to deliver.
Trading up from faster horses
For our own clientele, we have been developing software for board members since 2004. Board members are an interesting group because they can and will simply refuse to do or use something if it is not easy. We recognised very early on that if we were going to help them switch away from paper packs at board meetings then our solution had to tick the following criteria:
- It had to work all the time
- It had to be easy to use with no training
- It had to be something they actually gained pleasure from using, which made the old way of working intolerable
Simple. Then why weren’t we, as an industry, doing it sooner? Indeed, many developers continue to argue whether or not it is possible to deliver these consumer-style experience expectations and still achieve the functionality required in a business application. No doubt these are developers who also see more extensive manuals and guides as the answer. What we have actually learnt over the years is that manuals are a sign of failed software development! Quite simply, if the software isn’t intuitive enough to use without a guide then developers need to go back, think why that is and rewrite the code. In our business is, “it’s never ever the user’s fault.”
It’s also not enough to just listen to your clients’ needs. As the famous quote from Henry Ford goes, “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Clients’ needs have to be interpreted. You can please a client in the short term building the functional thing they ask for, but there is no way the client will remain with you unless you make that product work for them. People only ever talk in terms of function and never usability, and it’s this aspect that a good technology business will innately understand and consider.
There is a big question facing both application developers and IT procurers: just how long will employees of any generation continue to accept and endure the tedium of traditional technologies that require long training sessions and repeated access to a help desk? This is not just about the next generation due into the workforce, it applies to any individual who has asked why it takes less time to research and book a round-the-world trip than to make a stationery requisition at work. Society’s expectation of technology has fundamentally changed – there is less and less tolerance for software that is not incredibly easy to use.
Of course, many business software developers argue there is simply too much of a trade-off between business functionality and consumer style usability. But is this really true? Right now the constraint is primarily one of attitude – until business software developers recognise that it is as important to focus on the user experience as it is to focus on the features and functionality the problem will remain.