The very best technology is invisible. In a world where computer screens are littered with navigation bars, pull-down menus, icons and graphics, this has never been more true – but also more ignored by most software developers.
As with any other software implementation, one of the key contributing factors to a successful software project, and subsequent return on investment (ROI), is the ease with which the new technology is adopted by the user community. The new technology should be perceived by the day-to-day users to enhance their productivity, and specifically in our industry, be seen to lessen their administrative responsibilities, thus freeing up more time for creativity. Hence the need for user acceptance in the widest possible sense.
User acceptance comes in many forms. It can relate to accepting that the new system works technically or that it supports the business process as it should. Or, critically, that the new software is easy enough to use that it helps, rather than hinders, the users.
Without this user acceptance the software runs the risk of being seen as an ‘inhibiter’ rather than an ‘enhancer’. If the user community does not fully embrace the new software as a necessary part of their “normal” day’s work it may be shunned for more traditional means of collaboration and product management, thus making it redundant and ROI is significantly reduced – or eliminated altogether. Software vendors should never forget that users have day jobs that they need to continue with while the shiny new software is implemented. This is arguably even more important in European markets where the designer/buyer is the lifeblood of a fashion retailer and therefore has a greater say in the choice of software. In other regions of the world a more top-down approach is taken at a strategic level, with less input from the end users.
Thumbs up or down?
There are many ways to increase user acceptance levels, ranging from including users in the selection process to using dedicated in-house project management. Note that most of these solutions currently fall to the client rather the software supplier.
One of the simplest ways to ensure user acceptance is the “user-friendliness” of the application – an area often overlooked by vendors. Software vendors seem to get so caught up in the race to provide more and more, in-depth functionality and business process coverage than their competitors that they often forget the fact that someone eventually has to be able to intuitively use the system.
What they don’t tell you…..
The software vendor will tell you that the system is ‘useable’ and fulfils its purpose. What they may not tell you is that this is when it’s being used by their people. Their people know the software and their full-time job is just to use it, ie not use it AND develop next season’s range of products, check on the current season’s sales and look at potential mark-downs, keep ahead of trends, design products, produce collections and get their produce to market on time.
Most people only use a small portion of most software in their normal day jobs. Modular based systems with limited access rights – such as product lifecycle management (PLM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) – combat this problem, but with “defined” roles often differing across organisations this is not always as clear cut as it is intended.
Add to the equation the need to join the dots of the supply chain. Foreign suppliers whose first language is not that of the master company, and who will no doubt be faced with multiple PLMs and ERPs from different clients, will be faced with a steeper learning curve still with systems that don’t have the necessary simplicity and intuitiveness that even native language speakers need.
So what’s the answer?
Well, I’ll give you a clue – it’s a very similar acronym to UA – it’s ‘UI’, or User Interface. It’s the way that the software looks and works for the user. Get the UI right and your UA is more likely.
Let’s look at one class of software that I know well – PLM. Vendors of PLM software are used to looking to other industries for inspiration but many seem to have overlooked the industry that supplies the platform of PLM – the Internet.
In the early days of the Internet there were many search engines ready to help you in your quest for information. Now there is one that dominates the market place thanks to its impossibly simple yet functional interface – Google. A simple white screen with a single search box. It is the epitome of intuitive functionality.
The rise of Facebook and other Web 2.0 applications, prove that the intuitiveness of a clean, simple UI, appeals to the widest audience and almost guarantees its use. But they also prove that if you want to add functionality to your system you shouldn’t just place it on top of what’s already there – you think about how the user would like to use the whole thing and add it in the right way, in the right place.
So good UI is one answer.
I’m too sexy for your PC
Some vendors of retail PLM market seem to have embraced the concept of intuitive and consistent UI better than others, mostly those with origins in the fashion/retail industry. Typically they understand that fashion consumers “get off” on things looking good (not to mention the fact that some of us creative types can also be prone to “technophobia”). Of course there are exceptions to the rule, but as a whole suppliers seem to underestimate the importance of applications that, to put it bluntly, look sexy and are a joy rather than a hindrance to use.
To illustrate my point, I recently spent time with an organisation that were evaluating a new system, deliberating between a choice of two that had made it to the final shortlist. One system was extremely powerful and more future proof, but unfortunately had been developed by “techies” with little regard for the UI. The other was a system that relied on an antiquated platform and method of use that limited the functionality and scope. However the UI was vastly superior to that of its competitor. So too, was the price. At over 50% more cost, it was not only the most expensive but also the most limited of the choices.
But who do you think the customer selected? That’s right, they choose the system with the most intuitive and best looking UI, which gave the illusion of being more modern and therefore superior. In short, a system that would be easily adopted by their user community. And do you know what the argument was, coming from the mouth of the project leader? – “I can’t possibly present the other solution to the board as the next generation and be taken seriously”
Not only does an enhanced UI improve the user acceptance within the investing company, but PLM providers (and other enterprise level software providers) need to recognise it as a crucial factor in gaining a competitive advantage, rather than a secondary that is swept under the proverbial rug in favour of a blinkered focus on functionality.