My struggles in understanding and learning about Object Oriented design, and the tools and knowledge I've taken from them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

User Experience

Tim, Hero Extraordinaire
I just completed a massive (well massive for the company I work for, anyway) process of importing some 6 million records into the CRM software we use. It was an arduous process, but the work of one person (me, of course), over the course of about a week, saved a half a dozen people several weeks, or even months of data entry work. It was a major win for both the company and the department I work in.

The Shocker
Because I'm a bit of a narcissist (or maybe even a diligent worker), I took some time to get a pulse check on how some of the end users were feeling about the software transition - of course, I was expecting to get pats on the back, offers of free beer, first-born children, and a lifetime of gratitude. What I got instead was feedback from several people that it had been challenging and frustrating experience for them, even some of those people who were saved all that tedious time of data entry!

Wait a minute. What? What are you talking about? I saved you people zillions of keypresses, and that's your response? That this has been a frustrating process? Don't you people remember the last transition like this that you had to deal with (before I joined the company, of course)? Printouts of data entry items had to be put in garbage bags for queuing because you ran out of boxes!

So, the narcissist (or diligent worker...however you wish to label me) in me felt quite inclined to probe into why this was a frustrating experience.

I got responses like:

...The screen layout isn't quite right

...When I press the tab key, it takes me to a different field than I want it to.

...This screen's background color gives me a headache.

If you've ever built any sizeable pieces of software, you know that these issues raised by the end-users are so mundane, that it's hard to give them priority over the bigger pieces of functionality that need to be built. Background color, control placement, tab index...all of these things often end up being afterthoughts. Finding the right decision tree algorithm, or appropriate layering of your application's architecture are much sexier problems to solve.

But to the end user, they make up a huge element of their experience.

Lessons Learned
I don't really have any pearls of wisdom to provide around this. After all, I'm certainly not an artist, and user interface elements are not particularly a strength of mine. But I did take something important from this process.

Firstly, when you take work away from someone who never knows they were going to have to do that work in the first place, the work you take away from them is invisible to them. They don't care, and neither would you if you were in their position. But that's the burden you bear as a person whose role it is to create and optimize processes that benefit end users.

Secondly, pay attention to the user experience.

I didn't build the CRM the company uses. The things the users mentioned about their experience were all configurations of the software, and after paying attention to what the end-users were saying and changing the settings to what were optimal for them, we ended up getting a lot fewer complaints about this process.

Since the CRM transition, I've pushed out a couple new features in an internal application that the marketing department uses, and for those features, before they got rolled out to production, I spent some time looking over the shoulder of an end-user who was testing it for me. The 20 minutes I spent doing that led me to make a few minor tweaks to the user experience, and ended up saving the user several mouse clicks and about 30 seconds every time they used the features I built. This 30 seconds, multiplied by a few hundred times per year, will be paying dividends for years. And the user will enjoy using the software because it doesn't subconsciously make them want to start the building on fire because of all the darn mouseclicks their main software requires.

There are lots of themes in software development. If we're not busy creating solutions that look for problems, we're spending a lot of time solving problems for ourselves, rather than for the consumers of our products. User experience matters more than we think, and minor tweaks to the user interface help us to "put a bow" on our masterpieces. As software developers, it's important to make sure that we pay attention to the user experience, and find opportunities to decrease mouse clicks, make the user interface more aesthetically pleasing, and create a user interface flow that is intuitive.
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