Hello and welcome to episode six of Front End Center - Users: Experience and Interface.
I recently made a trip up to Seattle to enjoy the brief period every year where water wings aren’t mandatory fashion in the Pacific Northwest.
Visiting a brick-and-mortar bookstore in Amazon’s backyard seemed to be an appropriately ironic thing to do in Seattle, and I found myself browsing the technical section for any hidden gems. I had nearly exhausted the shelves when I found a copy of “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum”, by Alan Cooper. I had read the book in digital format years prior, and it had helped shape my ideas of learning to design and develop. Now that I’ve finally put those ideas into practice for some time, I decided to circle back and see what insights still rang true from a second reading.
For a book originally written in the late 90’s, a lot of the ideas hold true. Cooper identifies the friction between a developer’s idea of well-designed software, and a user’s preconception.
Many discussions on the topic of user experience are over simplified. Either the developer is in the right, and the user is just too dumb to get it, OR the user is right, and the developer is too oblivious to admit their approach is a chaotic mess.
Cooper uses a particular example of this early in the book, talking about the file and folder structure of modern operating systems. It serves a very particular, organizational purpose from a technical perspective. It is also grasped, in varying degrees, by most users, but not always with appreciation for “why” it functions that way.
As web applications become more complex, there’s a tug-of-war on how to channel complexity and usability.
One approach is to enforce simplicity as an absolute. Reminiscent of Apple’s design philosophy, users are given access to a set number of interactions or inputs. The interface does only a few select things and isn’t incredibly customizable, but it does them with unparalleled polish and flare.
The other approach is to allow the user as much control as possible. The more settings and tweaks the user has available, the more custom and unique their experience can be. A lot of software made by-and-for developers favors this, as do software products that attempt to cater to global-sized markets. If your software does everything for everyone, imagine the sales figures!
Walking the line between these two extremes can be tricky. Google is an ever-present example of the pros and cons of this process at a mind-boggling scale. The recent split of Google into the Alphabet parent company and related endeavors underscored what most industry insiders knew for some time: there’s a lot going on under Google’s hood.
Whole teams would work on different projects without ever directly interacting with each other, for great amounts of time. Unfortunately, this sometimes meant that the left hand had no idea what the right hand was doing. Conflicting project scopes or interests might suddenly pop-up, or great chances to combine efforts went completely unseen.
In trade, though, these teams were able to focus their products on very specific user personas. While Google has a cohesive and recognizable brand, their search engine landing page isn’t beholden to the functional needs of the Android operating system, or their new domain registrar venture.
Each team is able to identify the users of importance to their product, and distill their needs and goals into usable interfaces.
Where does that leave those of us who are working on complex solutions without a conglomerate of endlessly funded super teams? We face the challenge of giving our users the most efficiency we can, as often as possible.
What that means for you is very dependent on your project and its users’ goals. Working in the corporate enterprise space, it’s rare that I get to focus on an Apple-esque minimalism for great amounts of time. The one-off projects that have such focused goals are all too quickly done and shipped, leaving much more complex processes to be tackled.
The meat of our work focuses on applications and portals that will be used by people around the globe and in a countless number of roles. To adequately handle the colossal amount of needs and variations, it’s important to think contextually, and in layers at that.
So what considerations go into the landing page of a company-wide portal? Even attempting to break down the interface by dedicated roles in the company is a lost cause. From interns to analysts, associates, consultants, managers and executives, the range of needs is way too diverse.
We need to understand the broader goals that may span many job roles at once. The first is often convenient functionality. Being an internal resource, a LOT of your users will be repeat visitors with a very specific goal in mind. Being afforded quick and easy access to their goals will have a minimal impact on the interface while meeting many different needs.
Next, a shared location acts as a single point to receive information. Important news and updates from large to small can be easily accessed and organized, providing exposure to information a user may not have otherwise encountered. Actually planning and implementing the information architecture around this efficiently is a beast separate from the interface, however.
A newer topic in enterprise that is gaining steam is social and peer interactions on mass scale. Where things like company intranets were once the realm of “one-to-many” announcements and listeners, we are at a turning point focusing on community contributions.
Many users, whether they’re technology oriented or not, are now accustomed to having a voice and autonomy online. The interest and ability for an entire enterprise of users to interact and foster progress internally is unprecedented.
Early efforts to this effect were heavy handed, and not incredibly effective. Cloning the interface of a popular service like Facebook increases user familiarity, but does little else. At best, users disengage and return to their actual social networks as force of habit. At worst, use of the enterprise space devolves into the aimless social space it imitates.
What we grapple with now is formulating a combination of direction without stifling creativity. What combination of interface and user experience leads to more natural connections and growth? Is it even possible to achieve a professional parallel within a workplace that mirrors the social explosion in private lives?
User interfaces, experience, and enterprise challenges will be a recurring theme here on Front End Center. What specific challenges and opportunities interest you the most? Until we tackle them soon, this has been Chris Landtiser and Front End Center.