The importance of making business apps consumer-friendly
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.
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