Q&A: Why Are Enterprise Applications Underused? Poor Software Design

Software design expert Harold Hambrose's new book, "Wrench in the System," says poorly designed software is costing U.S. business $60 billion annually. Too many apps, he says, are still "pig ugly," confounding users, instead of helping them. Here's his advice for getting out of the rut.

Wondering why your company's staffers are using only a fraction of the software features and functionality that your bounteous enterprise software offers?

Harold Hambrose can give you an answer. In fact, Hambrose, founder of Electronic Ink, a consultancy specializing in designing and developing business systems, wrote a book about what he claims is the $60 billion that U.S. businesses will waste this fiscal year on poorly designed software.

Harold Hambrose
Electronic Ink's Harold Hambrose

The new book, Wrench in the System (Wiley), takes a scathing look at business software development practices, especially the products of enterprise vendors. "Software manufacturers are generally confident that their products will succeed on the strength of their technology," Hambrose writes. "But products that don't appeal to their users can be self-defeating. Whenever software systems create obstacles—technical jargon, ambiguous messages, illogical sequences or visual clutter—the people who use these systems will respond in a variety of ways." That typically includes undesired behaviors that users (and CIOs and applications managers) know all too well—frustrating and inefficient workarounds, complete disregard for business process, or abandonment of the application altogether.

Hambrose went to Carnegie Mellon University for graphic design and, later, contributed to the user interface for IBM's OS/2 and the first computerized patient record for First Data, notes his bio. He founded Electronic Ink in 1990 and has since worked with British Petroleum, Comcast, McDonald's, Research in Motion, among other Fortune 500 firms on software design issues.

In his book, Hambrose offers advice and explains low-cost development changes that can make a huge difference. CIO.com Senior Editor Thomas Wailgum recently talked with Hambrose about user frustrations, why most packaged vendors apps are poorly designed, and why he wrote the book.

"I wanted to be able to give a larger audience the tools to push back on IT vendors more effectively and perhaps give some power to people in trenches to stand up and say: 'This is why this system sucks for me,'" Hambrose says. "I hope the book appeals to not only the CIOs out there, but to the doctors, nurses, stockbrokers and whoever else is wrestling with systems that have been put in their hands with the best intentions, but yet they're still wrestling with them."

CIO.com: What's the biggest pushback you hear from potential customers or software vendors?

Harold Hambrose: In the larger ERP environments, the biggest pushback you hear is: "Oh, you're a design team, and you're going to propose we customize our SAP or Oracle system." And that's just not true. What we represent is a method to configure the system—prelaunch—that improves usability and adoption.

Another pushback I hear is: "I have business analysts around the table, so don't they do what you folks do?" No. In fact, we want you to replace business analysts with designers. We know that you folks understand the business. What designers afford you to do is to model that in new ways and all those models allow you to change the way you're thinking with this tool.

The last one is: "Can't this all be taken care of with training and change management?" Our belief is: If you do this right, there's no training involved. And there's no change-management budget necessary.

CIO.com: When it comes to the discussion between application aesthetics versus usability, which one is more important?

Hambrose: I think the software industry is confused about usability and design because they are two separate things. The software industry has known about usability for a long time, definitely in my 20 years. They've built usability labs, and they've hired usability professionals. Those people have come from the world of ergonomics—measuring the effectiveness of a design in the hands of a human audience.

Usability is really a subset of design. Design is a verb. It says: You move through inventing something a certain way and one of the outcomes will be usability. Another outcome will be beauty. But the two things are interrelated.

[Design expert and author] Don Norman has made the case and said it one of his more recent books: "The beautiful things work better." These software applications, when they're pig ugly, they're getting in the way.

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