Successful applications require users

Baseline magazine has a great article reinforcing why we build applications, they are for people! The article is about Symantec’s Project Oasis, the code name for their massive ERP overhaul as part of the merger of Symantec and Veritas. The project reinforces that successful applications have users who not only are able to complete their tasks error free, but that emotional and personal impact of the software is incredibly important to it’s eventual success.

Technically, Project Oasis, an upgrade to Oracle 11d, was flawless. The code, interface and system—aside from some conflicting records that made accounting difficult to interpret—went exactly as Symantec had conceived when it launched the project in May 2005.

But users didn’t understand the system. The voluminous information it provided them and the myriad steps required to place orders created confusion and poor usability.

As individuals choosing applications we are free from the burden of corporate history and inertia, we are able to select the operating systems, applications and web services that best meet our needs. If you prefer running Mac OS X or Linux, just run it. If Microsoft Office doesn’t match your budget, try Google Docs or Apple iWork. Amazon SimpleDB not providing the indexing and performance tuning you need, maybe Microsoft SQL Server Data Services (SSDS) is more your cup of tea. As alpha geeks, we get to push the envelope of what is possible. We get to explore new frontiers. Often we get to do this with freedom of a revenue model, without deployed customers, without a legacy.

But what about those with paying customers, how do you push boundaries and define new models for them without negatively impacting your bottom line? How do you prepare customers to move forward?

“Despite its best efforts, the management team could not adequately prepare its more than 60,000 resellers, partners and distributors—and scores more customers—for the procedural changes required by the new system.”

Project Oasis was executed flawlessly. It was a technically flawless upgrade to Oracle 11d. But it wasn’t enough. Symantec’s CEO “blamed part of the company’s sluggish financial performance in the third quarter of fiscal year 2007 on the ERP plague”. It turns out that people determine the eventual success of a system. Understanding the user experience of an ERP solution, and the lack of alternatives for interacting with the system users have 2 choices:

  1. Learn the new system which may involve customer support, training, etc., or ;
  2. Find a new provider.

It’s even worse with internal facing applications, employees are forced to use poor applications for payroll, benefits, performance management and nearly every part of their interaction with a company’s systems. The idea that employees should understand the General Ledger codes for submitting expenses is absurd. It’s either the role of the financial department to correctly identify how expense should be entered or it’s their responsibility to ensure that the system and processes are easily learned and used by non-financial staff, probably sales people and assistants.

Symantec had realized that when leaving a financial system upgrade to only the financial and IT staffs you’ve created an unusable solution. A solution that only the people who built it wanted to use.

the system was performing as designed—to a fault. The problem was that Symantec had inadvertently created the perfect storm: It had failed to consider the user experience with the new system, it hadn’t correctly identified the true users of the system and it had layered other projects on top of the ERP implementation, thereby complicating the launch and generating more confusion.

Software like business is messy. We want to think that things are digital. Binary. Black and white. We want people to be efficient, error free, rational actors. They aren’t. Understanding people, their experiences and their desires is the cornerstone of building successful software applications.

Technology may be the engine that drives business, but business is still conducted by people. Understanding the needs, desires and experience of the customer—whether that person is an internal user, a reseller partner or a consumer—is critical to any company’s success and growth.

Successful software is used by people.

Learning how to build customer-centered systems is a mix of theory and practice. But primarily, it is about your organizational culture. Who holds the decision making power? Marketing? Development? IT? Who speaks for the users?