is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Enterprise software, it can hardly be debated, is pretty bad stuff. The high-dollar applications that businesses use to run their internal operations (everything that falls under human resources, typically, but also accounting, communications and, at one time or another, just about everything else) are some of the least friendly, most difficult systems ever committed to code. If you work at a big company and you’ve ever had to do something that should be simple, like file an expense report, make changes to your salary withholdings — or, heck, if you’ve ever tried to apply for a job at a big company — then you’ve probably encountered these confounding user experiences. And you probably cursed out loud.
This is partly because enterprise software rarely gets critiqued the way even a US$30 piece of shareware will. It doesn’t benefit from the rigor of a wide and varied base of users, many of whom will freely offer merciless feedback, goading and demanding it to be better with each new release. Shielded away from the bright scrutiny of the consumer marketplace and beholden only to a relatively small coterie of information technology managers who are concerned primarily with stability, security and the continual justification of their jobs and staffs, enterprise software answers to few actual users. Given that hothouse environment, it’s only natural that the result is often very strange.
Parts Is Parts
Mostly, when I use this stuff, I think to myself, “What were the designers of this software thinking?” Which is also exactly what I thought when I spotted this advertising campaign for Lotus Notes 8, the newest revision of the email and calendaring software from IBM. The ad that I came across is a kind of a fun interactive toy built with Flash that makes a bizarre pitch:
“Imagine if you could take the qualities of your favorite animals and combine them into one. That’s the principle behind the new Lotus Notes 8 from IBM.”
Play with the interactive doodads in the advertisement a bit and you can create a not unfunny amalgam of chicken, bull and duck, or donkey, dolphin and rhinoceros, etc. It’s a cute idea, but really, it betrays a probably unintentional appropriateness. It’s just perfect that Lotus Notes, an application whose awkward integration of multiple feature sets I’ve only ever heard spoken about with violent disgust, promotes itself as freakish software. As if frightening, cross-species aberrations of nature are what we’ve all been looking for in an email and calendaring solution. This is a campaign that can only make sense in the intensely inward-looking world of enterprise software.
Do They Get Design?
Okay, that’s a cheap shot, for sure. Setting aside the goofy irony of this campaign, I have to wonder: what is it about the world of enterprise software that routinely produces such inelegant user experiences? Presumably, IT managers are enthusiasts of technology and the Internet as much as designers, if not more so. It’s understandable that they may fail to explicitly grasp the design principles that inform good interfaces, but surely that same exposure should make them aware that the software they’re buying and rolling out is not as easy to use, right?
It occurred to me that the problem may lay at the schooling level; we talk a lot about teaching design to business school students, but what about management information systems students? Presumably, MIS candidates are getting very little if any training in design or user experience. That seems like a missed opportunity to instill design values at a critical stage within a critical group of design constituents.
But what do I know? Very little, admittedly. What it takes for one to get into a position of managing information technology is beyond my knowledge, and I’m only doing a disservice to myself if I dismiss it as trivial. Those of you readers who are IT managers or who are familiar with MIS training, I’d be obliged to learn more about how we’ve arrived at this state of affairs in which such a tremendous gap exists between consumer and enterprise software. If there’s anything we can do to make this stuff better, we ought to do it.+