The importance of making business apps consumer-friendly

Credit: David Berkowitz via Flickr

This is a guest post from Dan Miller, VP of product management for cloud accounting software provider Intacct. He also worked for Intuit, where he designed the user experience for the first versions of Quickbooks. Read his full bio below.

In May, Google released a redesign of its Google+ iPhone app. Tech journalists such as Jason Hiner of TechRepublic called the release "stunning":

“It turns the act of scanning social media updates into a highly visual experience by combining a slick rendering of your avatar with the signature image of whatever you're posting and then overlaying the first two lines of your text.” 

When was the last time you read such a gushing review of a business software upgrade? Exactly.

It's a rare occasion when companies get excited about their business applications, much less shout out about how mind-blowing they are to use. It's time for all of this to change for the better. In the last 15 years, the software industry has made notable strides in making applications more accessible to the average user. Yet we are still in the earliest stages of this evolution for business applications. More often than not, business apps assume way too much expertise on behalf of the user. Many applications are still not intuitive, much less fun to use.

As people increasingly use their personal devices for everyday work, they have no tolerance for learning how to use new products. They just want to complete a task with the click of a few buttons. If the experience is too frustrating, they'll look for another solution on the Web instead of the one your business has deployed. This is the threat and opportunity of so-called consumer IT. Software companies should aim to make applications as easy to use as ordering a movie from Netflix. Accomplishing this is not easy -- but I maintain that it's possible.

The 80 percent rule

The primary challenge for software companies is how to solve the problems of not just a handful of customers but thousands of them. This requires an in-depth understanding of how most people accomplish processes and tasks in their business. At my former employer Intuit and now at Intacct, product designers take the time to watch people at work doing their job and using the software. Ad hoc observations and more formal usability studies can determine where people get frustrated in the application, so developers know exactly what to build and how.

While there's no perfect solution for every user, adopting the 80% rule, where you design for the most common  use scenarios, gives product teams the right focus. For example, if we were to rewind 10 years ago, and you wanted to connect your PC to a wireless network, you practically needed a degree in wireless networking to get it done. Now, you walk into a Starbucks, open your PC or start using your tablet and it just works. The evolution of technology design means that companies are -- or should be -- developing products that simply work for the common usage patterns. The goal is that the product should do the right thing on the first try with as little user intervention as possible, while still enabling users to accomplish less common tasks.

In our industry, we have several user types, and we strive to design features based on those distinct audiences. We design differently for accountants and other financial staff compared with a broader employee audience who use the software activities such as expense reporting and who don’t likely have accounting knowledge. We have created personas for these various users and then develop around that persona’s usage pattern and expertise.

As we design for mobile and tablet devices, we give the user what they need, which is often a different set of tasks than those commonly performed from a PC. Typically, users will only do a few tasks from their phone or tablet, so we figure out what those are and focus on delivering those really well. That means, in part, helping someone complete the task in as few steps as possible.

For example, in the world of managing company finances, the mobile app is ideal for reviewing and approving purchase orders, timecards, and expense reports. In a few clicks, the manager on the road can complete an everyday task and not hold up the business. Or, managers can get a snapshot view of company financials in a single screen, from a simple chart. Yet, we realize some users may  need to complete a task they normally don’t do from their mobile device. Developers need to plan for that expectation, and meet that user’s need without creating a lot of stress. So while creating applications that satisfy the "80% rule" is critical, developers should also plan appropriately for the other 20% of cases -- the less common use scenarios.

This also applies to finding answers to questions. Too often this is frustrating for users, as the help function often only defines the fields and buttons on the UI. This leaves the user searching the Web or calling support to find out how to accomplish a task. 

We're in the process now of creating a more integrated experience for learning by building information directly into the user interface.  Answers to common questions, all the way to training and support team access, will be integrated into the user experience, delivering help at the point of need.  There’s no need to search multiple sources to find an answer.

If user experience is important to your company, someone's going to have to sweat the details.

Even something as basic as the design and experience of using the login page for your site is worth the time to refine. Can a mundane task be pleasant to complete?

Consumerizing business software is not easy. The development process requires balancing self-evident usability without sacrificing the power and flexibility that business application users expect and need. An application should be able to perform complex functions quickly, such as revenue recognition in finance. Business applications need to be flexible and powerful to solve the unique needs of customers -- but that doesn't mean they can't be easy and fun to use.

Dan Miller is vice president of product management at cloud accounting software provider Intacct. Prior to Intacct, Dan had a long career with Intuit, where he created products for small and mid-size businesses. He designed the user experience for the first several versions of QuickBooks, and provided executive leadership for QuickBooks, QuickBooks Enterprise, and Customer Management solutions.

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