For years, decades even, software engineers built software for people like themselves – geeks who saw a mess of cells, drop-down menus and cryptic titles as an intellectual challenge, requiring a solid foundation of study. Even for the most basic productivity tasks such as drafting a letter on word-processing software or compiling a general ledger on a spreadsheet program, you needed training and a deal of patience.
On business desktops – outside of the Apple Macintosh niche – it was only with the arrival of Windows 3.0 in 1990 that organisations began to move in earnest onto graphical user interfaces, after the eras of MS-DOS and green-screen terminals.
It’s amazing looking back and seeing what we tolerated: typed command codes to format and save documents and a total lack of WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editing meant you had to guess how a document might look when printed. IBM introduced Common User Access to define the way all computer screens to behave the same way, what was called a shared ‘look and feel’ which made sense from a usability point of view, but most software looked pretty drab.
Today we live in a very different world. User interfaces are based on thousands of hours of usability testing and have 3D icons, snappy actions, choice of colour schemes, built-in multimedia and pre-emptive Help options to improve productivity. Websites use HTML5 and Flash to provide animations and effects, apps make creative use of limited screen real-estate to provide intuitive user experiences.
Enterprise software may in fact be the last bastion of poorly designed interfaces that require users to be expert specialists, but even here the user interfaces of the past are being rejected by workers – of all ages, professions and walks of life – who want to replicate the simplicity and immediacy of consumer technology in the workplace.
Developers of business software have to respect this, and focus on building systems that are easier for everybody to get the most out of – whether the user is a young Generation Y information worker just entering the world of work or a Generation X worker that grew up with PCs.
That’s why enterprise software designers are now taking their cues from consumer programs and services. Knowledge management and HR systems now look like Facebook, with employees listing their areas of expertise much as a teenager might list his favourite bands. Collaboration systems look like Skype with faces popping up in windows to humanise the experience.
Signing off purchase orders can be like Twitter, with micro-blogging conversations used to request or query authorisations. Corporate services might be subject to Amazon.com-style reviews and star-rating systems and downloaded like songs on iTunes. Some companies even provide incentives for staff by “gamifying” their work, awarding points for certain activities on leader boards.
It’s a very different world, and while moving to accommodate a new workforce full of “digital natives” – young people raised with the mature world of PC, internet and mobile technologies – organisations must also cater for an older generation of workers, many of whom may be confused (or even feel patronised) by such approaches.
It’s also important to remember that a great user experience needn’t be fancy: for a fleet maintenance engineer a simple red- or green-light accept/reject theme on the completion of scheduled job might be perfect.
But it’s clear that the days of screens cluttered by reams of bewildering menu options and geek-speak dialog boxes are numbered. Today’s software must understand and build in the needs of users, from interfaces that work on smartphones and tablets for mobile workers to those that understand the unique characteristics and modes of working of individual users and roles, and respond in context.
Clearly the user experience won’t stop changing. Increasing consumer preference for mobile platforms means the latest software from Microsoft, Google and Apple appears to be pushing us to a new age of interaction where the KISS (‘keep it simple, stupid’) principle reigns and minimalist white screens are everywhere. To appropriate a phrase from the fashion world, “white is the new black”.
User interfaces are changing to accommodate a world where people interact with computers in very different ways and across a multitude of devices. Software must adapt to recognise device types, operating systems, screen sizes and more. We are very close to a world where it will be common for us to talk to our smartphones to search for business information, use gestures to run through PowerPoint presentations, and sell wares displayed virtually on coffee-table screens. But whatever technological delights appear, software designers will need to keep their eyes on the most important factor of them all – the user.