Sunday, July 10, 2011

Ignoring the Obvious

The term “organic” occasionally gets tossed into conversation with regards to software architecture/design.  The basic concept is to make the software behave as though it sprung from Mother Nature, rather than a herd of Monster-swilling, Skittles-munching teenage kids with headphones on rocking out to the latest neo-punk and rave tunes.  PhD engineers spend considerable time trying to concoct things that appear organic.  A common example is Apple, but that’s much too narrow.

The best way to determine if something is organic, in my stupidly-humble opinion, is to look at how complicated or problematic something is in the eye of the user community.  That sounds pretty vague, I know, because it is vague.

Maybe if I pointed at two examples to contrast it will make more sense?  How about comparing System Center Configuration Manager (CM) 2007 and Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) 3.0.  If you skim through the various discussion groups and gather a sampling of the kinds of things that tend to confound users, new and old, and apply some basic trending, you’ll no doubt come to the conclusion that CM is a bit tougher to master than WSUS.  Granted, there are more moving parts and more things to consider for CM than for WSUS, but if you then take that a step further and compare the pain points from CM 2007 with the new features in CM 2012 you will see that the smarter engineers are looking at the same things to determine where to focus their efforts on the “next release” of their given product.

User Experience (UX) analysis is not a new art.  It’s been around for decades.  In fact, if you broaden your scope a bit, it’s been around for centuries.  But specifically within the software engineering world, it only comes up in small circles of discussion.  It often gets (unfairly) lumped in with User Interface (UI) Design and analysis.  That is misleading and very often completely misses the point.  User Experience is just what it says “User Experience”.  That definition goes way beyond UI analysis.  It also includes secondary and tertiary aspects of the behavior of a software product or technology, such as command line, format interchange, troubleshooting processes, deployment, licensing, configuration management, yada yada.

So, how then do most software companies tackle UX analysis?  Good question.  The answer is that every company has evolved their own methods.  There is rarely any standard, even with text books and professional groups trying to derive some common ground.  Some of the generally accepted methods are:

  • Beta trials, Previews, and so on
  • Anonymous surveys
  • Focus groups

The problem with these is that they don’t shine the full spectrum of light onto the gamut of issues and aspects involved with charting a software design direction.  It’s like walking into a class room and confronting a student with questions about a subject, as opposed to listening passively to a conversation between the students about the same subject.  The end result will almost always be ENTIRELY different.  I could cite other examples, but you should get the point by now.  I’m not saying that the assertive approach isn’t worth using, but it’s not going to yield comprehensive results.

The “obvious” term in the post title is aimed at what is most often missed.  Most vendors have online discussion forums, even Facebook pages (soon, maybe, even Google+ pages?), but discussion forums and open/public sites (like are golden opportunities for vendors to peak into the lives of their user community and see, directly, first-hand, what their customers find most challenging, most daunting, most annoying. It’s almost like being a fly on the wall.  Yet I am surprised at how few vendors take advantage of this opportunity.  Most are still focused on the three assertive methods I listed above, even though they have their own user-community discussion forums. 

I often wonder if it might help to have a dedicated section in most vendor discussion forums called “Bitching and Gripes” and let users get it off their chests.  Sure – there will be a lot of useless noise – but there will also be some golden nuggets to pluck and make use of.  I don’t know.  It sometimes feels like vendors have lost the art of communicating with their customers.  Customers want to talk, just let them, and then make use of it.

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