The following post has been written by Ken Cooke, Nextenture’s Product Architect.
I hate making the bed. Folded laundry is as useful to me atop my dresser as in it and, on my desk at this moment, I can reach for a notebook I haven’t written in for months, a year-old stack of travel receipts, and a jumble of accessories that arrived alongside a white board I’m yet to hang. Naturally, there’s much more along with a smattering of glamorous personal effects: an unused American Express gift card, a dental bill that needs to be paid, an Allen wrench used to tighten my desk leg once 6 months ago. I wouldn’t call my desk a mess, I would call it well lived-in.
Let’s imagine someone organized my desk: put the notebook on the shelf with others, filed the old receipts in a filing cabinet, disposed of the white board accessories I wasn’t going to use and set aside those I needed in a drawer. Now, depending on how alike we are, you are either thinking “but how will I ever find anything I need again,” or you’re experiencing a wave of euphoric calm washing away the once mounting anxiety. You can delete that application to “Hoarders” you were drafting on my behalf.
The truth is, I tend to have both feelings in this scenario: the apprehension that I’ve been somehow handicapped without everything I “need” at my finger tips, co-mingled with the clarity and sense of purpose that an organized desk brings. Where do you fall on this spectrum? Where might your significant other?
To be fair, the opposite scenario applies as well. In my previous job, I kept a downright barren desk. Passersby would jokingly inquire whether it was my last day, encouraging me to put something on my desk and “stay a while.” Of course, this type of clinical austerity has it’s drawbacks. Will I spend more time finding and putting away things than I will using them? What’s the right balance? In software terms, this is the job of a Product Designer.
The answer however, is not black and white. It’s dependent on the nature of the task and the tools it requires, but we can take some broad strokes. If when cleaning out your closet, Marie Kondo asks you to employ the filter of “does this possession spark joy,” we can apply adjacent techniques such as “will I use this feature today,” “will accessing and dismissing this feature take longer than using it,” or most importantly, “will filing away this nice-to-have feature make it easier to do what I need to 90% of the time?” This way of thinking leads to simpler, more user-focused, software even if it means occasionally having to look for something you only use every few weeks.
But you don’t need to be in software design to know that there is a balance to be had. You’ve experienced it as software has evolved. Your smart phone, word processor, and favorite website have become easier to use over time, so why hasn’t your expense reporting, your scheduling software, your people database, or your intranet? The trend of simplified interfaces has taken hold almost everywhere except Enterprise and perceived utility is reason why. The prevailing thought is that professionals want every feature available to them at every moment and that clean interfaces will be mistaken for useless “consumer” products. Have you ever seen a well-run professional kitchen that was a mess? Likely, no.
Designers building for Enterprise are regularly discouraged from creating clean interfaces in the name of “power,” “convenience,” and most perniciously, “perceived utility.” And to be fair, the individuals discouraging the designers are right. The perceived utility may not translate into actual utility for end users, but it does translate into dollars for the software company. Many executives still feel more confident putting money down on a product that looks “powerful” (read complex). This is why your current Enterprise systems are the messy desk. But worse, you didn’t make the mess. Software companies design and sell you the messy desk, prepackaged with all the comforting clutter you’re used to. So, at least that way, even if you don’t need it, you have it.