Thursday, June 17, 2010

User friendly?

This blog represents quite a change in direction for me – the effort I have put into blogging for the NonStop community these past three years helped me transition to a new career opportunity but up until now, nothing I had been asked to do involved pursuing what I like to do most, blogging. Well, here is the first!

This week, in Simi Valley, CA, I stood in line to pick up mail that I had stopped while travelling. I decided to try out the online services that the US Postal Services (USPS) provides to stop my mail delivery but now, picking up my held mail and getting the service restarted, required my presence at the local Post Office. When it came my turn to talk with a postal clerk, the interaction soon degenerated into confusion – how I requested my mail to be held and then had the service restarted followed a completely different procedure than what I was used to in Colorado. It’s the same federal postal service but I quickly came to realize that the expectations at this location were quite different. Perhaps it was my usage of the online service that required me to learn a different protocol? After finally retrieving my mail, I was told, “see how ‘user friendly’ your postal service has now become!”

Many years ago I had sat in a bar on the western end of Stevens Creek, Cupertino, with Roger Mathews who a few readers may recall was, for many years, a Tandem product manager. I can’t remember the exact circumstances that had led to us being in the bar, and let’s just say that, in its day, it was a popular meeting spot, but I know we had been working on a presentation to a development partner. For some reason, we began talking about how a popular phrase was all too often nothing more than an oxymoron. For instance, who came up with “giant shrimp,” and sadly these days, why do so many of us smile whenever we hear of “military intelligence”. Some readers may even be confused by the expression “Dallas Culture,” but I will say nothing more on that subject.

When it comes to “user friendly” however, Roger and I were divided, as I recall. In many situations what is little more than a pretty front-end to an application, aimed at simplifying data access, proves to be a barrier to access that can be outright hostile! More times than not, and for reasons that remain a mystery, some implementations I see today prove to be every bit as confusing as any dialogue with a postal clerk, and no less intimidating. “User friendly” seems to have crossed that line and become an excuse, and even a cover-up, for poorly thought out designs – as if in saying that yes, adding the label “user friendly” gives us the right to provide complete rubbish! The confusing and hardly necessary changes in the postal system procedures were not only not “user friendly”, to me the whole experience was borderline “user hostile”!

Remembering this exchange with Roger flashed through my mind as I was working with comForte; they have a very long history providing user friendly interfaces. For me, a hallmark of a company providing value is that they have been around a long time. Eearlier products from Dr. Michael Rossbach’s company had caught the attention of ACI and as I was at Insession at the time we almost became colleagues when ACI purchased Insession in 1999. Dr Rossbach left ACI before the Insession transaction closed, and since that time, has brought additional user access products to market, and today there’s rarely a site I visit that doesn’t have one product or another from the comForte offerings of MR6530, MR-Win6530, and J6530.

comForte was the pioneer in supporting intelligent client access, often via local networks, for many NonStop applications. The productivity gains that an “enriched experience” has brought ensured that comForte was able to develop products and solutions in other areas, and the NonStop community has gained significant benefits from comForte’s products’ user friendliness. Rather than using comForte products to gloss-over application deficiencies, many users have ended up differentiating their products and services purely through the use of well-thought-out, user friendly interfaces.

For me, “user friendliness” represents a good topic to kick-off this blog. Get a user interface wrong and it’s a barrier, but get it right and you can easily differentiate product offerings! Over the next few weeks, as I look at innovation and productivity, I will return to the subject of “user friendly” on a regular basis as it seems to have fallen from vogue of late. I will also choose topics related to what really fuels my enthusiasm for the NonStop platform: the substantial ecosystem of partners and consultants prepared to make their own investments in support of NonStop users!

Well, the Post Office sure could have had a better handle how to be user friendly, as should our local gas station attendant – but that’s another story.

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