Eric Burke published this cartoon back in early 2008, and it’s stuck with me for a long time as something that is simultaneously hilarious, sad and maddening.
I started my career in development building those eye-chart apps with fields and labels all over the place, complete with the obligatory button bar. Enterprise apps are complicated.
Whether or not they need to be is fodder for discussion.
When we started this team a few years ago and began building web apps like Connect and Mix, we tried to make them as easy to “walk up and use” as possible. For the uninitiated, “walk up and use” is a design principle that assumes something is so intuitive it does not require training for first-time users.
But even after several years of tweaking the interface, I still get requests for training and documentation.
This could mean one of two things. Either the app isn’t as intuitive as I think it is and needs to be redesigned, or people are generally hesitant to walk up and use any new application without some training.
I suppose it could also be a combination of those two.
Web apps are generally accepted to be simpler and therefore easier to use than enterprise apps, but even so, I’ve heard people complain that applications like Facebook and Twitter are hard to learn. At first blush, this sounds nutty, but I suppose there are areas of each that could use some redesign, e.g. Facebook’s privacy controls and Twitter’s @ replies.
Obviously, some apps are developed for the literal scenario of “walk up and use”, namely self-service, kiosk-type apps like Redbox DVD rental or airline self-checkin. Again, as with web apps, I’ve been in situations where people have asked for help with these apps.
So, if even the simplest apps have users asking for help, maybe “walk up and use” is a myth.
If you assume it’s a myth and regardless of what you build, you’ll need to train people, why worry about design at all? If the app is functional, who cares what it looks like?
That’s a rhetorical question because it does matter. I’m just throwing it out there.
One interesting factor to consider is the intersection of play and work, Paul’s favorite area for noodling. If your app is engaging and fun, users are more likely to go farther to learn how to use it, instead of falling back on training immediately.
Back to Burke’s cartoon, I think it was more a funny observation than a broad brushstroke conviction of enterprise application development. Like I said, it’s funny to me, as well as sadly spot on and a bit maddening because it feels like an impossible trend to reverse.
The comments are interesting and worth a read if only to observe the reactions he elicited.
Generally speaking, most apps are used by very few users, call it a long tail of usage, which hinders the advancement of their design. Almost 100 million people in the US alone use Facebook each month. How many people use your company’s Accounts Payable application?
If design is driven by use, apps behind the firewall will never attain parity with consumer-facing apps.
So, I don’t think “walk up and use” is a myth, although no example fits 100% of the time. I still think it’s a desirable attribute for all apps and possibly attainable, through unorthodox methods like game mechanics.
What do you think? Find the comments.