The current state of productivity software, especially in the B2B context, is quite deplorable to the extent that most people wouldn’t touch those applications if it weren’t for their job. Admittedly, we’ve come a long way in the past decade, but why has it taken so long to start designing for the user and why is this trend not moving faster? My conclusion thus far is that user-centered software is rare because creating great user experiences is hard work.
In conducting research for Notable, I have found that people are generally aware that they should be more organized to become more effective in their decision-making. Rather than using competitors’ apps though, most people eschew software altogether, turning instead to pen and paper. Therefore, while potential users indeed feel the pain of living a disheveled lifestyle, the difficulty of using existing tools is so great that most people have consigned themselves to state of disarray.
So how do you go about building productivity software that consumers want to use? Well, it has to start with a deeper understanding of the customer and the jobs they have to get done. Let’s break down what this means, and equally important, what it does not mean.
Gaining an understanding of the customer implies having empathy for the customer and seeing the world through their eyes. To start, by following accepted conventions, product designers can create comfortable user experiences where customers are automatically in tune with the environment. Using familiar interaction elements also helps to limit the possibility of user error. If a user does make a mistake though, they should be given an easy way out. Another way to put it is that products should have high discoverability.
The best productivity software should be forgiving of mistakes and look inviting to use. On a superficial level, this means including undo functionality and avoiding feature bloat. But on a more fundamental level, having a discoverable product means that it guides the user along without the need for overt arrows or dialog boxes. Ideally, intriguing and useful features would progressively reveal themselves as users naturally explore the application.
Ultimately, intuitive design comes down to outstanding usability. The software should contain no more functionality than the minimal requirement to satisfy the user’s needs. When the UI is perfectly aligned with a user’s mental model, she can focus on getting things done without having the tool get in the way. When the brand identity is perfectly aligned with a user’s wants, she starts to feel productive just by virtue of using the tool.
The most important aspect is recognizing that crafting great user experiences starts with the user. In other words, it does not start with an assessment of what the engineering team is capable of building or what upper management thinks will generate the most revenue. The satisfaction of user needs should dictate how time, talent, and treasure should be allocated – not the other way around.
If there is less time, the product team ships fewer features, not lower quality features. If there is a limited pool of talent, existing developers should make an effort to get trained, rather than hacking together a sub-par solution. Less treasure (funding) should result in smaller product increments for each sprint instead of cutting corners. You can always do less, but you should never do worse.
Understandably, in the hectic rush of the reality, product teams don’t get the luxury of carefully considering all the angles of great design. However, I have to believe there is a way out of selling apps based solely on OEM distribution partnerships and the rapport of Sales Manager with enterprise executives, and into a world where apps are sold based on their merit. I believe we can move beyond the mindset of how to sell yet another license, and instead focus on the end user by making a tool that was built with them in mind.