Nellie, an interaction designer for a typical enterprise software company, is wrapping up her involvement with the latest release of one of her company's main products. Though she has several years of UI design experience, this is her first job at an enterprise software company. She has delivered the final artwork to the development team, and she's made the last laborious update to the design spec. Usability tests have been run on the beta version, and results have been presented to management showing that participants were successful and satisfied with the software.
As she reviews the final list of usability bugs, closing some, marking others to be addressed during the next release, Nellie smiles. It's been a long development cycle, but she knows all her hard work will be worth it when users rave about how wonderful the product is.
One year later, Nellie is not smiling. One of her company's biggest customers isn't raving as much as they are ranting. Accepting a meeting invitation scheduled by the account rep to try to calm the angry customer, Nellie sighs heavily and wonders what went wrong.
When the customer demos their installed application for her, she can't believe the changes that have been made. Important fields have been relabeled, primary navigation links have been modified or removed, and elements of the product's workflow have been changed so that a five-step process now consists of 14.
Nellie thought she had put this version of the product to bed 12 months ago. But now, tied up in meetings, working through quick fixes, and planning longer-term solutions, she wonders what she could have done to avoid all this.
There are always surprises in store once a piece of software is released into the wild. But unlike software destined for the consumer market, enterprise software can undergo a potentially disastrous transformation before it winds up in a user's hands.
I spoke with Wai On Lee, senior director for user experience at Siebel Systems, about this phenomenon. Lee pointed out that there are extra, unacknowledged phases of design that occur in the process of deploying enterprise software that simply don't exist in the development of shrink-wrapped software.
It's not that designing enterprise software is necessarily more complex, but, as Lee puts it, "There are a lot more layers of activity."
As we all know, the layers of activity in a typical product development cycle include a feature specification phase, a design phase, and an implementation phase. Add a little QA work, sprinkle on some usability testing, stir in some all-night coding sessions to fix the bugs, stamp it on a set of CDs or load it on the Web server, and you've baked yourself a product ready to be purchased and savored by consumers.
In contrast, when a customer decides to shell out the big bucks for an enterprise application, they expect it will be customized to fit their own unique business processes. While the developer of the enterprise application considers the product finished, the customer views the product as only half baked.
"The business processes of our customers dictate that the system they end up with is sometimes a little different, sometimes dramatically different, than what we ship out of the box," says Lee.
So a whole new product development cycle begins, initiated by the customer and driven by people who didn't work on the original. Customizations are specified, designed and implemented. The people involved in this customization process might include business analysts, IT departments, project managers, various business stakeholders, large consulting or professional services organizations, and perhaps an end user or two.
That's a lot of cooks in the kitchen, all fussing with Nellie's original recipe. And while these folks are certainly well-intentioned, they may not have the formal usability training required to deliver a palatable experience for the ultimate users of the application. Until somebody perfects the cloning process, Nellie won't be able to lend her expertise to this processthere are too many customers to be able to pay attention to all of them. Besides, Nellie is busy working on the next release of the product. At least, that's what she was doing until she got called in to start putting out fires.
Unfortunately, little information exists to help her avoid this pitfall in the future. Lee feels that usability textbooks and training courses mostly ignore this part of the enterprise software development process.
"Doing field studies, doing lab work, doing design, iterating on design, those are things that would be useful whether you're in the shrink-wrap world or the enterprise environment," says Lee. "What is lacking is some recognition of some of the other moving parts beyond the building and shipping. The struggle that I have is influencing not only what we ship out of the box, but ultimately influencing what the users will actually use."
Eventually, Lee hopes the UI design field will create the methodologies and tools necessary to facilitate a usable customization and implementation process. In the meantime, he is focused on organizing a workshop for CHI 2005 that might begin to address the issue (see sidebar for workshop information).
Back at the office, poor Nellie is focused on figuring out when she can return to her "real" work.
Dustin Beltram is a senior interaction designer at PeopleSoft. With stints at companies such as IBM and Rational Software, he has spent the bulk of his waking hours over the past ten years designing software for corporate 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. firstname.lastname@example.org
For the CHI 2005 conference, Wai On Lee has organized a workshop on user partnership programs. Lee hopes that the workshop will help establish a framework that enables usability practitioners to bridge the gap between the design and eventual deployment of enterprise software.
"The workshop is one part of the strategy we have in terms of continuing to improve the UI design, usability engineering, and really our relationship between us as a vendor company and our customers," Lee says. The idea is that, by collaborating and sharing information with all of the stakeholders involved in the design and deployment of enterprise software, UE groups will be better able to manage any change that impacts its usability.
"I think this partnership is not only with our customers," Lee says, "but with all the different people involved in influencing the business outcome in some way."
The workshop is divided into two parts. The first part feature case studies from companies that have implemented or participated in user partnership programs. In the second part of the program, Lee hopes to have a very practical discussion about best practices for implementing user partnership programs.
"We as a field can share this information that will help all of us in the way we do these things," he says. "We all raise our level of effectiveness within the field and within our companies. That's the motivation for doing the workshop."
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