“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” — Statement by Henry Ford in “My Life and Work”, by Henry Ford, in collaboration with Samuel Crowther, 1922, page 72
The Henry Ford quote, which he made half-jokingly to his sales staff in 1909, is relevant to this discussion because the information sector has developed along the lines of the auto and many other industries. The statement was only half-joking because Ford’s cars could be had in three colors. But in 1909 Henry Ford had found a massive market niche that would allow him to sell inexpensive cars to the masses. His competition wasn’t so much as other auto manufacturers, many of whom catered to the whims of the rich and more affluent members of society, but against the main means of individualized transportation at the time–the horse and buggy. The color was not so much important to this market as was the need for simplicity and utility.
Since the widespread adoption of the automobile and the expansion of the market with multiple competitors, high speed roadways, a more affluent society anchored by a middle class, and the impact of industrial and information systems development in shaping societal norms, the automobile consumer has, over time, become more varied and sophisticated. Today automobiles have introduced a number of new features (and color choices)–from backup cameras, to blind spot and back-up warning signals, to lane control, auto headline adjustment, and many other innovations. Enhancements to industrial production that began with the introduction of robotics into the assembly line back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, through to the adoption of Just-in-Time (JiT) and Lean principles in overall manufacturing, provide consumers a a multitude of choices.
We are seeing a similar evolution in information systems, which leads me to the title of this post. During the first waves of information systems development and introduction into our governing and business systems, the process has been one in which software is developed first to address an activity that is completed manually. There would be a number of entries into a niche market (or for more robustly capitalized enterprises into an entire vertical). The software would be fairly simplistic and the features limited, the objects (the way the information is presented and organized on the screen, the user selections, and the charts, graphs, and analytics allowed to enhance information visibility) well defined, and the UI (user interface) structured along the lines of familiar formats and views.
To include the input of the SME into this process, without specific soliciting of advice, was considered both intrusive and disruptive. After all, software development largely was an activity confined to a select and highly trained specialty involving sophisticated coding languages that required a good deal of talent to be considered “elegant”. I won’t go into a definition of elegance here, which I’ve addressed in previous posts, but for a short definition it is this: the fewest bits of code possible that both maximizes computing power and provides the greatest flexibility for any given operation or set of operations.
This is no mean feat and a great number of software applications are produced in this way. Since the elegance of any line of code varies widely by developer and organization, the process of update and enhancement can involve a great deal of human capital and time. Thus, the general rule has been that the more sophisticated that any software application is, the more effort and thus less flexibility that the application possesses. Need a new chart? We’ll update you next year. Need a new set of views or user settings? We’ll put your request on the road-map and maybe you’ll see something down the road.
It is not as if the needs and requests of users have always been ignored. Most software companies try to satisfy the needs of their customer, balancing the demands of the market against available internal resources. Software websites, such as at UXmatters in this article, have advocated the ways that the SME (subject-matter expert) needs to be at the center of the design process.
With the introduction of fourth-generation adaptive software environments–that is, those systems that leverage underlying operating environments and objects such as .NET and WinForms, that are open to any data through OLE DB and ODBC, and that leave the UI open to simple configuration languages that leverage these underlying capabilities and place them at the feet of the user–put the SME at the center of the design process into practice.
This is a development in software as significant as the introduction of JiT and Lean in manufacturing, since it removes both the labor and time-intensiveness involved in rolling out software solutions and enhancements. Furthermore, it goes one step beyond these processes by allowing the SME to roll out multiple software solutions from one common platform that is only limited by access to data. It is as if each organization and SME has a digital printer for software applications.
Under this new model, software application manufacturers have a flexible environment to pre-configure the 90% solution to target any niche or market, allowing their customers to fill in any gaps or adapt the software as they see fit. There is still IP involved in the design and construction of the “canned” portion of the solution, but the SME can be placed into the middle of the design process for how the software interacts with the user–and to do so at the localized and granular level.
This is where we transform UI into UX, that is, the total user experience. So what is the difference? In the words of Dain Miller in a Web Designer Depot article from 2011:
UI is the saddle, the stirrups, and the reigns.
UX is the feeling you get being able to ride the horse, and rope your cattle.
As we adapt software applications to meet the needs of the users, the role of the SME can answer many of the questions that have vexed many software implementations for years such as user perceptions and reactions to the software, real and perceived barriers to acceptance, variations in levels of training among users, among others. Flexible adaptation of the UI will allow software applications to be more successfully localized to not only meet the business needs of the organization and the user, but to socialize the solution in ways that are still being discovered.
In closing this post a bit of full disclosure is in order. I am directly involved in such efforts through my day job and the effects that I am noting are not simply notional or aspirational. This is happening today and, as it expands throughout industry, will disrupt the way in which software is designed, developed, sold and implemented.