by Kim S. Nash

CIOs Seeking System Interfaces That Are ‘Apple-Simple’

Jun 28, 20123 mins
CIODeveloperProject Management Tools

Employees and consumers expect user interfaces to be so easy to use that they require no training. That isn't easy to do with corporate software, but CIOs expect vendors to help accomplish the goal.

The consumerization of IT pressures CIOs to make office tools as easy to use as personal technology. Some CIOs strive for new systems that are “Apple-simple,” meaning the interface is so simple that no formal training is required. Just pinch or tap, swipe and go. (For more on the challenges of simplification, see “CIOs In Search of Simplicity.”)

Employees expect an immaculate user experience, but they don’t necessarily grasp that building secure–and pretty–mobile access to the ERP suite may be a tad more difficult than creating an app that lets iPhone users pop virtual bubble wrap. “Those are challenging discussions sometimes,” says Dan Priest, CIO of Toyota Financial Services.

Priest recently built an innovation lab, or iLab, stocked with tablets, smart boards (interactive whiteboards) and other new technology that non-IT colleagues can dabble with as they brainstorm about future business applications. IT staff are usually there to collaborate. Promoting consumer-style technology builds bridges between IT and the rest of the company, Priest says. Through iLab, the IT group recently built an application for the legal department to manage contract modifications.

Some CIOs, especially in retail and hospitality, began to chase simplicity in user interfaces years before Apple products pervaded, to improve interactions with customers. But iProliferation has only intensified that search.

“My test for software has always been if I need training on it, it’s no good,” says David Weick, CIO of McDonald’s, which is testing a system that would allow customers in Australia to order burgers and shakes on their smartphones. In the United Kingdom, McDonald’s is testing touch screens that accept credit cards. In these settings, customers expect the technology to be familiar and faster than speaking an order to a cashier, Weick says.

To make these systems easy for consumers, however, the McDonald’s IT group must rework back-end systems to be accessible to consumer devices and serve data in a different order and in streamlined formats, he says. “There’s complexity in delivering that service, but the skin we need to deliver it on has to be simple,” he says.

It’s the IT equivalent of da Vinci’s notion that “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Steve Jobs liked that idea, too: That quote appeared in early advertising for the Apple Macintosh.

Weick wants other vendors to simplify–and misses no chance to tell them so. In a recent meeting with Oracle president Mark Hurd, Weick “preached the concept,” he says. “My team and I need to be focused on McDonald’s business. I prefer not to be tasked with integrating all the technical widgets you create,” he told Hurd. “I want Oracle to do that. Simplify my life.”

Follow Senior Editor Kim S. Nash on Twitter: @knash99. Or read her blog, Strategic CIO.