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Is your software killing you?

Is your software killing you?

Posting in Architecture

According to Harold Hambrose's new book, Wrench in the System”, software that doesn't communicate clearly with the people who use it is a major problem. Not just wreaking havoc but also costing business billions of dollars in waste. Hambrose, who helped design the interface for IBM’s OS/2 and has consulted for Fortune 500 companies such as British Petroleum, Comcast, McDonald's and Research in Motion is no stranger to design challenges.

According to Harold Hambrose, founder and CEO of the design consultancy Electronic Ink, the software you use may be causing delays, squelching innovation, lowering profits, and…if your business is health care, potentially endangering lives?

How? According to Hambrose’s new book “Wrench in the System” software that doesn't communicate clearly with the people who use it is a major problem.

Not just wreaking havoc but also costing business billions of dollars in waste. Hambrose, who helped design the interface for IBM’s OS/2 and has consulted for Fortune 500 companies such as British Petroleum, Comcast, McDonald's and Research in Motion, is no stranger to design challenges.

So…with so much riding on the software in our daily lives I’ve asked Harold to spend some time with us.

Harold, How do we know when the software we are counting on us is actually hurting us?

We know it when the software makes a task so complicated that we avoid it; when it discourages good work and innovation, rather than encouraging it; when it puts us at risk. There are plenty of examples. The Northwest Airline pilots – two smart guys struggling with shift-scheduling software. Obviously, their timing was terrible – maybe criminal, but you have to wonder, “What was that front end like?”

And with the increasing use of software applications in hospitals and insurance companies, every one of us now has a life-or-death stake in whether or not our medical records and other hospital technology can stand up to the realities of the emergency room, the operating room, and our local pharmacies.

How can we correct the problems? Any low cost solutions?

We correct software usability issues through a researched-based, user-centered design process led by trained designers. These aren’t just people with good taste and a sense of organization; they’re professionals who have made it their life’s work to understand how people interact with technology. They’re experienced at leading an organization through cycles of research, ideation, modeling, testing, and refinement to arrive at the best solution – a solution that is collaborative, fast and affordable.

We can usually find a design solution that will save our clients money and work within their budgets. We can jump in anywhere in the design process. Ideally, we like to be involved from the very beginning asking questions about the things that developers and stakeholders might not be thinking about yet. But improvements post launch are still incredibly effective. A professionally designed UI and information architecture can make a frustrating system much more user-friendly.

How can we reduce our training expenses?

By creating software that’s easier to use – that’s intuitive. You want to create software that mimics the way people work. They shouldn’t need a manual or have to memorize a set of instructions, and they shouldn’t have to reconceptualize how they do their job or learn new terms for the tasks they do every day.

Thoughtfully designed information architecture reduces training because it doesn’t ask people to reconceptualize their work, rename their activities, or learn a lot of configuration or workarounds. It’s simple and intuitive. That alone reduces training costs significantly.

What are some tips for the manager thinking about using software as a solution to a business problem?

Ignore your instinct to throw more technology and training at underperforming software. Take a step back and assess the situation. Does your software do what your users need it to do? Does it invite use or discourage it? If it discourages use, don’t assume you have to live with the system or buy a whole new one. Instead, realize that there are people out there – my company and lots of others too – who can come in, really listen to you and your users, and make what you have work.

Where’s this all going? How do we get smarter software and how does the social web fit in to innovation?

I believe software development should follow traditional product development. In traditional product development, you have to prove that a design is going to work before you expect a customer to buy it. Also in product design, the user is always at the forefront of the innovator’s mind. So it should be with software.

Smart software is software that reflects how we work and play. At the risk of sounding glib, I think we need as many anthropologists and artists involved in the software development process as there are data analysts and software engineers. Traditionally, software development happened in a vacuum, which invites narrow thinking and trouble.

People are using social software in all kinds of places: they want flexibility, accuracy, security – and even a little bit of fun. Obviously, social networking has opened the conversation to all types of people, which will open the door to new ideas. The challenge now is how to process all the diverse ideas and innovations to their best effect.

Thanks Harold!

Check out Harold's new book, Wrench in the System: What's sabotaging your business software and how you can release the power to innovate.

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Vince Thompson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor, People Vince Thompson is a digital revenue consultant, author, speaker and host of the popular BNET show Dog and Pony. His firm Middleshift LLC helps Internet companies build revenue by creating advertising solutions and scaling sales efforts. He is based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure