I've long wondered whether my alarm clock was designed by a human factors savant, or someone just happened to be lucky when they set pen to paper and sketched out the lowly device. There's a large decorative metal circle that happens to be right above the "Off" button for the alarm. My index finger readily locates this feature while groping for the beeping machine each morning, and it just happens to orient my thumb to perfectly stab the "Off" button. Contrast this to the iPhone, which is often touted as a design miracle. While the device broke new ground in interface design, the alarm function results in me snoozing the alarm about 20% of the time, or turning off the phone or otherwise failing to deactivate the alarm. In each case the physical layout of the device, the buttons, and the mechanics of operation either help or hinder a routine and simple task.
The dollars and cents of user experience
It's easy to ignore user experience as trivial discussions about colors and icons, and whether you put a button on the left or right of the screen. However, there is a very real cost to bad user experience that quickly manifests itself in training and adoption costs. While we as IT leaders may roll our eyes when someone from Apple or Google waxes poetic about some new interface element they spent months creating, consider for a moment what would happen if these companies had to train users on how to operate their devices. If a consumer can't figure out how to use Instagram in about 30 seconds, they'll likely download an alternative.
Since the dawn of IT, we've assumed that complex systems require complex training programs, and in the case of large software deployments, there might be teams flying all over the world, spending weeks teaching users how to operate a complex and counterintuitive system. More than a pretty face, user experience presents an opportunity to reduce or even eliminate that expense.
Like any good investment, building user experience into your systems pays a recurring dividend each time your company hires a new employee, or adds users to a system through acquisitions or business changes. While your IT department may not directly bear the costs, consider that a complex system not only handicaps the new hire, but also the one or more people who must pause their day job to get the new hire up to speed.
User experience is more than a pretty face
It's easy for technology leaders to assume that user experience is primarily a matter of hiring a designer or two and making applications "look pretty" to the extent that time and funding allow. Ultimately, the visual elements of an application play an important role, but usability considerations are equally important, and require a distinct skillset. Just as you wouldn't expect a web UI programmer to do hardware development, hiring a graphic designer won't complete the full user experience puzzle. These people usually have titles like Experience Architect, Interaction Designer, or UX Designer.
As you implement new applications, start planning user experience as you initiate the project and include a combination of interface and experience designers from the start, as their work will require interaction with end users and will influence technical aspects of the project. Focus on "borrowing" user experiences from common consumer platforms. Apple, Google, and Microsoft have spent years and billions of dollars educating the general public on what a finger swipe or right-click means, so the more your application leverages common design "language," the faster users will intuit how to use it, and the lower your deployment costs will be.
Spend some time educating yourself about design. There are myriad websites that highlight good and poorly designed applications and include narratives about what techniques succeeded and failed. You'll often find that something that's visually appealing may be incredibly difficult to use, and you'll also see that there's a science behind user experience that may not have been apparent. Hopefully you will also begin to appreciate that these disciplines are just as complex and important as coding, and debates about where to put a button may seem frustratingly nuanced, but will help make you a hero when your users are productive on day one with minimal training.
Machine learning will boost the enterprise user experience (ZDNet)
Google's data-driven approach to superior user experience, revisited (ZDNet)
Salesforce Brazil bets on customer experience focus (ZDNet)
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.