Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/07/08/sysadmin_user_experience/

Payroll jobs and Canucks on an iPhone

Three projects, many lessons

By Trevor Pott

Posted in Servers, 8th July 2010 10:13 GMT

Sysadmin blog I am supposed to crank out a set of articles about NTFS and Share permissions, but I'm changing the topic: user experience management.

This coincides with a series of IT-related but not IT-led projects at work. The projects allowed me a chance to see how other individuals approached the provisioning of IT services, from which I learned a lot.

The first project is the rollout of a new payroll system. To users, payroll is a mundane item. From an accounting perspective new payroll systems are stressful events. The closest IT analogue I can think of is a major operating system upgrade: think taking your entire network from NT5 to NT6. Most bean counters are not power users, and watching a rollout such as this happen, without much interaction with IT, is enlightening in two ways.

Firstly, all technical information related to the project was doled out by the payroll company at metered intervals. We didn’t find out the IT requirements until the end of the project. We haven’t set up the hand scanner yet because can’t get firm details on what systems the payroll company requires. Plenty of hoopla about how excellent their software and labour saving accounting procedures are; not very timely with the details.

The second observation is much more positive. I watched as the payroll company provided an exhaustive amount of information to our bean counters about how to use the software. Videos, live support conferences, reams of documentation and step-by-step instructions for absolutely everything. Provided of course you are using the environment they assume, which sadly relies on Internet Explorer.

It's positive because the bean counters were able to train staff, entirely on their own, how to use this software. There should have been more inter-departmental communication, especially when bugs and browser problems popped up, but the documentation provided by this company was excellent. The accounts department rolled out the software almost entirely without IT’s help.

They are impressed by the software. I’m more jaded. From an IT perspective, it’s primitive. I am sure it ticks the right boxes for regulatory compliance and ease of use, but the software raised no interesting flags. The presentation however, and the level of support, were superb. Dress up mediocre software right, and people will fall over themselves to use it.

The second project involved tweaking and testing some XML-based templates that fuel a java app we present to customers so they can place orders with us. Changing a bunch of variables, then launching the app and testing it to see if it blows up is monkey work. Template design takes skill and talent; testing templates takes nothing more than the ability to pay attention. Regardless, the CEO of the company ended up spending an entire day testing templates because there was nobody else to do it.

My message from this is exactly how important end-user experience truly is. My CEO views the time of his staff as money, and abhors spending the wrong person’s time on the wrong project. He would prefer to do other things with his time, but he considers, even in a manufacturing company, a functional and easy-to-use application experience so important that he will spend his time testing templates.

The last project is the finally finished ongoing catastrophe known as our mobile replacement. We ditched a set of truly awful Treo 700Ws for a shiny new Blackberry server and associated smartphones. After a few failed starts I took over the project. I offered our mobile users the choice of any phone our carrier offered - so long as it was a Blackberry. There of course had to be one user who, three quarters of the way through the provisioning cycle, told me we needed to get everyone iPhones. I pointed the users in the general direction of the Storm 2, and they have since been quite happy.

The event sticks out for me because the user was not impressed by the iPhone because it was Apple, or the phone was hip. Rather it was because at a tradeshow they caught a colleague watching the Canucks getting beat on an iPhone. The concept of being able to stream video on a cellular network had never occurred to them before this. They saw it first on an Apple, it was evangelised by an ardent fan, and thus Apple “invented” it.

In this way Apple has “invented” everything of use in mainstream computing. From being the only computer for design, to inventing the MP3 player, smartphone, tablet computer, video conferencing and now, apparently, 3G streaming. When introduced to non-Apple alternatives, the people crying loudly for Apple gear seem shocked that it already existed in a previous form. The lesson I took from this is that users don’t care about the technology. With the exception of a few loudmouths on the internet, nobody cares that this was made by Apple, Sony, Microsoft or anyone else.

Users care about what a product can do. They care about how easily that product can do it. Users care about looks, but not as much as ease of use, good documentation, presentation of features and fantastic marketing. What’s more, good businessmen care about these things too; this is what makes their company tick, and what makes them money.

So from watching other projects unfold, I have taken to heart the idea that IT must be about more than the technology we use to solve a particular problem. IT must even be about more than the problem we are solving and what it costs to solve it. IT is solving problems using technology, but it is also managing user expectations, knowing when to throw wetware at a problem and yes, doing IT truly well does require a certain amount of flair.

IT is about business - and an enormous chunk of business is nothing more than user experience management. Next, I'll be telling you how I'm putting this management into practice. ®