User-Friendliness Considerations for Enterprise Software

I just read Khoi Vinh's quacking cow dolphin post (by way of Nicholas Carr's blog) about how unfriendly he thinks enterprise software is (both posts are generating insightful commentary). Vinh makes a point about enterprise applications not receiving the same sort of wide-spread critiques that popular commodity applications do. He attributes this to the idea that the software is used by a less-varied base of people, which aren't very likely to be merciless with their feedback. He says
"Shielded away from the bright scrutiny of the consumer marketplace and beholden only to a relatively small coterie of information technology managers who are concerned primarily with stability, security and the continual justification of their jobs and staffs, enterprise software answers to few actual users."

I suppose that could often be the case, but it doesn't have to be that way. I can think of at least two ways that situation doesn't have to come to pass.

  1. Get the software development process to incorporate greater open communications, as facilitated in say, an open source project, where you can gather direct feedback from a variety of users.

  2. This is more easily applicable to any existing enterprise software solution, that is, assess the user-friendliness as a key element in the evaluation process.

One of the comments on Carr's blog says that usually a software evaluation process begins by scoring the requirements (I suppose s/he means the functionality). Functionality is relatively clear, you can rate it based on how or to what degree a vendor supports it. But the user-friendliness beast, quacks differently--involving qualitative rather than quantitative ratings.

When we help clients evaluate software we eventually reach the stage where final vendors are invited to participate in a scripted scenario, demonstrating how their software meets the needs of the potential purchaser. At this point you can have various representatives that will use the software, in the room, witnessing how it functions. On the one hand, this is a chance to verify some of the vendor's functional claims, on the other hand it's a chance to qualitatively rate the user-friendliness of the software.

In a recent project, we included a qualitative assessment section for each functional segment of the software. Users qualitatively rated how good they felt each functional area was, based on three criteria

  • Ease-of-use: were the software processes shown, intuitive? How cumbersome is screen navigation?

  • Process fit: does this match how we run our organization?

  • Degree of process improvement: how valuable is this to your current processes? Is it a process improvement with value or a chagne not in keeping with projected improvements

The ratings for each had a point value, so we were able to accumulate the scores to make user-friendliness a factor in the overall decision (actually it contributed about 8 percent of the total evaluation). One would hope that this sort of methodology helps an organization choose an enterprise system that won't be hated by those people using it.
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