Do we pay enough consideration to usability when selecting data management tools?

Way back in when I was doing my degree, I remember a joint course that combined students from the Computer Science department which, at the time was very focused on algorithms and programming skills, with students from the Business Informations Systems (BIS) department – a more commercially oriented and less technical group.

Image from pxfuels

At one stage we were asked to do a practical – back in the days of command line and green screen.

The BIS group, by and large, delivered code with a lot of focus on the user interface. The user was given clear instructions about what needed to be captured, and what it was to be used for. However, in many cases the underlying program didn’t work correctly – the results calculated and presented, however beautifully, were incorrect.

By contrast, the CS group all produced functioning code. At face value, this would seem better, right?

However, in this case, many of the interfaces were unusable, except for the person who had written the code. In one extreme case, the user was presented with a series of flashing cursors (prompts) and was required to enter the required values in the correct order with absolutely no instructions.

From an IT perspective, we often make technology choices based on technical factors – factors that make life easier for the IT department.

These may include:

  • Existing vendor: It can be painful to onboard a new vendor, deal with procurement and legal, and build and manage a new relationship.
  • Integration: How easily will the proposed solution “fit” into our existing landscape?
  • Scalability: Can the proposed solution cope with our volumes and complexity
  • Security: Is the proposed solution secure?
  • and so on…

However, in many cases, we end up with technology choices that a business-user community really struggles to understand and use. In many cases, we expect users to adapt and use multiple tools doing similar things but in very different ways. For occasional users, in particular, these seemingly minor quirks and differences in interfaces and look and feel can become major obstacles to getting their job done.

When business users complain the response from IT is often “Make it work!”

Unsurprisingly, uptake is often poor and expensive investments are wasted.

Going back to my university days – neither the BIS or the CS choices were better. Of course, technical concerns around scalability, performance, integration, security, and all-around effort to support and maintain any platform are legitimate and must be considered. But business users needs around adoption and usability must also be seriously considered.

Both business and IT should engage in finding solutions, that work, and that provide business-first, consistent interfaces for usability across multiple use cases.