Off the Top: Extranet Entries

January 31, 2007

It is Finally IT and Design in Enterprise (and Small Business)

My recent trip to Northern California to speak at the UIE Web App Summit and meetings in the Bay Area triggered some good ideas. One thread of discovery is Enterprise, as well as small and medium sized business, is looking at not only technology for solutions to their needs, but design.

IT Traditions

Traditionally, the CIO or VP IT (and related upper management roles) have focussed on buying technology "solutions" to their information problems. Rarely have the solutions fixed the problems as there is often a "problem with the users" of the systems. We see the technology get blamed, the implementation team get blamed (many do not grasp the solution but only how to install the tools, as that is the type of service that is purchased), and then the "users need more training".

Breaking the Cycle of Blame and Disappointment

This cycle of blame and disappointment in technology is breaking around a few important realizations in the IT world.

Technology is not a Cure All

First, the technology is always over sold in capability and most often needs extensive modification to get working in any environment (the cost of a well implemented system is usually about the same as a built from scratch solution - but who has the resources to do that). Most CIOs and technology managers are not trusting IT sales people or marketing pitches. The common starting point is from the, "your tool can not do what you state" and then discussions can move from there. Occasionally, the tools actually can do what is promised.

Many, decision makers now want to test the product with real people in real situations. Solution providers that are good, understand this and will assist with setting up a demonstration. To help truly assess the product the technical staff in the organization is included in the set-up of the product.

People and Information Needs

Second, the problems are finally being identified in terms of people and information needs. This is a great starting place as it focusses on the problems and the wide variety of personal information workflows that are used efficiently by people. We know that technology solutions that mirror and augment existing workflows are easily adopted and often used successfully. This mirroring workflow also allows for lower training costs (occasionally there is no training needed).

Design with People in Mind

Third, design of the interaction and interface must focus on people and their needs. This is the most promising understanding as it revolves around people and their needs. Design is incredibly important in the success of the tools. Design is not just if it looks pretty (that does help), but how a person is walked through the steps easily and how the tools is easy to interact with for successful outcomes. The lack of good design is largely what has crippled most business tools as most have focussed on appealing to the inner geek of the IT manager. Many IT managers have finally realized that their interface and interaction preferences are not remotely representative of 95 percent of the people who need to or should be using the tools.

It is increasingly understood that designing the interaction and interface is very important. The design task must be done with the focus on the needs of real people who will be using the product. Design is not sprinkling some Web 2.0 magic dust of rounded corners, gradients, and fading yellow highlights, but a much deeper understanding that ease of use and breaking processes into easy steps is essential.

Smile to Many Faces

This understanding that buying a technology solutions is more than buying code to solve a problem, but a step in bringing usable tools in to help people work efficiently with information. This last week I talk to many people in Enterprise and smaller businesses that were the technical managers that were trying to get smarter on design and how they should approach digital information problems. I also heard the decision managers stating they needed better interfaces so the people using the tools could, well use the tools. The technology managers were also coming to grips that their preferences for interfaces did not work with most of the people who need the tools to work.

Technology Companies Go Directly to the Users

I have also been seeing the technology tool makers sitting with their actual people using their tools to drastically improve their tools for ease of use. One President of a technology tool maker explained it as, ":I am tired of getting the blame for making poor tools and losing contracts because the technology decision makers are not connected with the real needs of the people they are buying the tools for." This president was talking to three or four users on problems some of his indirect clients were having with a tool they really needed to work well for them. This guy knows the tech managers traditionally have not bought with the people needing to use the tools in mind and is working to create a great product for those people with wants and needs. He also knows how to sell to the technology managers to get their products in the door, but knows designing for the people using the product is how he stays in the company.

March 31, 2002

Extranet overview

John Rhodes provides an overview of extranets and hits some great points.

...most people like self-service. An extranet facilitates this activity, if you design it correctly.

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