It’s the back to school season, time for a new flock of UI designers to begin their education at HCI programs around the world. Unfortunately, when they emerge from their studies with diploma in hand, they will not have the knowledge necessary to successfully design business-oriented applications. Hiring managers at enterprise software companies must invest considerable time and money to provide new recruits with the skills and experience needed for their jobs.
One of the most essential skills for a designer of enterprise software is the ability to get in the mindset of the person who will be using the software. Jon Innes, director of user experience at SAP Labs in Palo Alto, California, says schools should teach students how to learn a domain.
"Treat it like method acting or investigative reporting," says Innes. "They should learn how to study the user’s perspective. Not just from a task-analysis standpoint, but pick up publications for those types of people, read Web sites for those types of people. Spend some time learning what it’s like to be an HR person or a finance person. Take their role."
A skill like this is vital to master because the domains of knowledge encompassed by enterprise software are so vast. A designer might work on a financial forecasting tool for one release, then move on to designing a sales-force automation tool or a call-center application the next.
"It’s very different from working on consumer software," Innes points out. "If you’re designing something you might use yourself, it’s easier. Everybody at Yahoo! or eBay can sympathize with what it’s like to use Yahoo! or eBay. But not everybody can take the perspective of what an accountant or salesperson or HR person is going to do with the software." Being able to understand each unique perspective of the multitude of enterprise users makes it easier to create useable designs for them.
Innes also believes HCI programs don’t expose students to the realities of designing software inside a large company. Interaction-design and usability-testing activities are not carried out in a vacuum; there are myriad stakeholders, from product managers and software architects to marketing and sales people to third-party system implementers, who all influence the design process. Students also need to realize that not every project they work on will be a successful one. Various studies peg the failure rate of large-scale IT projects anywhere from 30 to 95 percent. Learning from these failures can be instructive.
One way schools could address the issue, Innes claims, is by integrating case studies into the curriculum. He says, "Having case studies like business students get, in the area of HCI, would help them understand business a bit more, but also help them understand more about the areas of the business that design interacts with, in order to make successful products. I think that’s pretty key."
A few years ago at CHI, Don Norman suggested students should learn about the way businesses operate if they want to influence the business. That’s especially true for enterprise software designers, who are creating software for business users. Chuck Harrison, lead usability engineer at Microsoft in Redmond, Washington, took that advice to heart when he decided to supplement his Master of Psychology with an MBA. Harrison, who has worked at companies such as Siebel and BMC, believes students need more training in enterprise applications.
"Most of the preparation (in HCI programs) is geared toward consumer apps, where you really get drilled into user-centered design," says Harrison. "In the enterprise settingI’m not coining a new term herebut it’s really business-centered design."
Companies buy enterprise applications from the likes of Oracle, SAP, or Siebel to run their businesses more efficiently or to gain insight into their organizational knowledge. An individual knowledge worker, or end user, doesn’t have a lot of say in the tools foisted upon him or her. According to Harrison, "You really have to change your perspective, understand what the business problems are. Instead of worrying so much about the user-centered-design aspects of how I make a user feel more emotional about this piece of software, it’s more about understanding business requirements and translating those requirements into a tool people can use and adopt."
One very practical skill missing from most HCI curriculums is project management.
"The scope of enterprise software isn’t sixty or a hundred features, it’s thousands of features. Students need to learn how to understand and prioritize that work better," Harrison says. Innes concurs. "Enterprise applications are just more complicated [than shrink-wrapped applications]. That’s why project management is so important."
Since so many necessary skills are not taught at school, managers have to supplement new employees’ skill sets by sending them to training. In addition to project-management training, new recruits often get sent to internal boot camps, where they take the same courses that developers or end users take in order to learn something about the underlying technology and the user’s domain. New employees are often paired up with mentors on the UI team who can help get them up to speed. All of this extra training can significantly postpone the point at which an inexperienced designer becomes a productive member of the team.
Clearly, a gap exists between the training provided by HCI programs and the skills necessary to design real-world software for business users. The main thing schools can do to bridge the gap is provide practical training. Innes believes schools should mandate an on-the-job internship. Not only would students gain valuable real-world experience, but they would also take their experience back to the university to help modify and shape the future of the HCI curriculum based on businesses’ needs. In addition, if there is a class project on ethnographic studies, give students the option of carrying out the study in a consumer or business environment. Finally, students could work on the projects operated by the school’s IT department. After all, as Harrison points out, enterprise applications are in every major university; improving their usability would be great hands-on experience.
"The whole relationship between academia and industry right now: It’s very evident that we’re not exactly playing together as a team," says Innes. "The academics want to study cool stuff and publish research, and the industry wants to solve problems and ship products. But there’s not enough bridge between the two worlds. I think that over the years it’s gotten worse, not better. Schools should help businesses find better people."
About the Author:
Dustin Beltramo is a senior interaction designer at Oracle. With stints at companies such as PeopleSoft, IBM, and Rational Software, he has spent the bulk of his waking hours over the past ten years designing software for business users. When not in front of the computer (where he spends entirely too much time), Dustin likes to read science fiction, futz with his camera, and marvel at the human-factors issues encountered by his new baby boy.
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