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The Innovation Generation and User Interfaces

I don’t intend for all my posts about Millennials joining the workforce to be anti-youth. There are some significantly good things this new generation can bring to established organizations – ways of thinking that foster innovation and forward-progress in how organizations use information.

For example, let’s talk about user interfaces (UI). I’m not an old man, but I remember the advent of IBM’s Common User Access standard. DOS-based computers and early GUIs introduced UI variety, and the resulting lack of consistency took part of the blame for systems that were hard to learn (and therefore hard to use). CUA promised consistency, greater productivity and information effectiveness.

Fast forward to the modern Internet era, and it’s clear that “common user access” is no longer a baseline requirement for effective use of information. Cutting edge web sites pride themselves on their innovative, engaging, and unique front ends. Every website you see is different, yet it doesn’t take people much time to figure out how to order a book on Amazon, browse for peripherals at CDW, or bid on stuff on eBay. These are mainstream Internet users I’m talking about; the tech-savvy are just the ones coming up with a new and different clown suits** for the same old services.

** Where ‘clown-suit’ means ‘innovative dynamic XMLSocket/AHAH/AJAX-based exploitative web 2.0 social mashup,’ of course. (props to carsonb)

However … isn’t it interesting that those mainstream Internet users, productively surfing at home, are the same folks in your office complaining about difficult-to-use ERP systems? In this world, UI consistency is not an issue (okay, except when an acquisition is folded inelegantly into another framework). The challenge is with system designers and developers that lack an understanding of what makes a user interface effective and engaging – something that most longtime corporate system developers have never really been trained in.

Not that the newbies (sorry, Millennials) coming in to our IT departments automatically know how to design an effective interface – they are just more open to it, and they understand it better when they see it. Admittedly, “I know it when I see it” is hard to describe and extremely hard to train. However, now I must link to one of the few presentations I’ve ever been able to get a lot out of without having the presenter present to me

Now, I certainly can’t explain Kano Modeling and the more theoretical stuff, but it really starts to click on slide 15 when he showed a hierarchy of needs for user interaction. The slides lay out basic ideas that resonate, and terrific examples that you can recognize from your daily travels through the Internet. These applications speak to you, not at you, and make the act of using them a pleasurable experience. Simple stuff like conversational error / warning / guidance messages, effective use of pictures and words, and the value of “less is more”.

I think a critical differentiator between an application accessible via the public Internet and the typical internal, corporate application is a fundamental assumption [on the Internet] that you cannot hold your user’s hand through the process. The information presented, and the user’s experience, has to stand on its own – because it is impossible to know who, when, and where your stuff is going to be used. This raises the bar for usability and scalability, but it’s a great model to emulate for internal development in this lean economy.

So how do you make the jump between internally-focused developer and externally-savvy innovator? I’d start with Anderson’s presentation – see if it “speaks to you”. I think you’ll either get it (and your mind will open up), or not (and you need to burn a few hundred hours surfing websites and experiencing the difference).

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