Saturday, August 7, 2010

Why poor design seems to be the rule in business.

I've been working as a consultant advocating good UX design for more than 15 years now and one thing has pervaded almost every interaction with executive management. I'm constantly asked to justify the time and expenditure required for good design practices. Nobody ever asks for a business case to justify the poor design practices that are systemic in corporate IT. My guess is that people do not recognize that the lack of an intentional design is still a design. It's just a poor one (usually).

In thinking about this topic again and again, I think I've had a revelation. I now understand exactly why this attitude is the rule.

It is a habit learned over the last 50 years.

It takes a person about 66 days to form a habit. I could not find any research on how it takes for an industry to form a practice.

Think about it. When computers first entered into business environments, most people did not interact with them, most people interacted with the artifacts that computers could produce and with minority of people who could program the computer using punch-cards. Do you remember punch-cards? Have you seen them in documentaries? This is where the habit started. At this time the equation was very simple:

Cost to design and create a new interface system more usable than a punch-card reader > Cost to train the people who interface with the computer

This was abundantly true for so many reasons:
  • The people who interfaced with the computer in the time of punch-card readers were super geeks and punch-card logic came easily to them
  • The people who interfaced with the computer in the time of punch-card readers were very few in numbers
  • The concept for other possible interfaces did not even exist yet
As time progressed and command line interfaces became the norm, this equation held. The number of people who interfaced with the computer increased ever so slightly, the types of people using them did not shift at all, and a small group of people saw the possibility of graphical interfaces, but the numbers were still overwhelming.

As time progressed even further and WIMP interfaces (thank you Xerox!) became the norm, this equation still held. The number of people who interfaced with the computer increased a little more rapidly, the types of people interfacing with them began to shift as people who used computers in grade school hit the work force, and a different, but still small, group of people saw the possibility of putting standardized graphical frameworks on top of information systems, but the numbers were still overwhelming.

Time moved on yet again and web browsers have now become the norm (thank you Mozilla!), and despite the fact that the equation has finally shifted most businesses do not even realize the basis on which the original decision was made. It's not anyone's fault. There is no "big book of corporate assumptions" lying around that people are supposed to check every couple of years. Just like a habit, the mode of operating has become somewhat unconscious. When executives ask for the business case for good design, I do not believe that they know the basis for the question itself has completely changed.

  • The number of people who interface with computers in business or consumer settings is rapidly approaching 100%.
  • The types of people who interface with computers has dramatically shifted in ways beyond thinking styles; People of all ages now access computers and a new generation has entered the workforce; A generation of workers who don't view their employers as bosses, but as an easily replaceable organization entering into a trade agreement with them.
  • Useful, usable and desirable interfaces and experiences are readily conceivable (thank you Amazon & Apple!)
The equation has changed!

The required investment in user experience pales in comparison to the amount required to train an entire population of job-hopping workers and fickle consumers.

The first step in breaking the habit is admitting we have a problem. If we are to remain economically viable we must challenge our base assumptions.


Non-intentional design habit - Garbage

Turning over a new leaf - Like it

"Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything, Kent. 14% of people know that." - Homer Simpson

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

Insightful. You're hot.