Three Best TLAs of all time, the hegemony of Excel, and the Intuitive Front End

Everybody jokes about TLAs and the proliferation of consultant-speak. My favorites to date include:

  • SPOCSingle Point of Contact: During integration meetings between two merging IT organizations, SPOCs were identified as the key connection points between groups. Panders to the trekkies, but sticks in your mind.
  • WOMPWhat’s On My Plate: The name of a report we developed in a PMO, listing issues assigned, projects being managed, open programming requests, etc. – one page per person. The WOMP report became a critical management tool, and the name was funny, too.
  • EIEEverything in Excel: When listing critical application interfaces, we put EIE on a presentation, just waiting for someone to ask. Always gets a big laugh, because it rings so true; in every organization I’ve worked for, Excel is the integration / analytic tool for Everybody.

I find Excel to be a fascinating abstraction, hiding multiple complexities behind it’s [relatively] low price. Unfortunately, the price/performance ratio for that piece of software sets an unattainable baseline of expectations for most software – internal development as well as packaged apps. To wit; how often have you heard folks saying they want something “as easy to use as Excel”?

Primarily, I take this to mean data entry. Cut and paste, drag and drop, you can impose order on-the-fly. Plus, since there are a million ways to navigate the keyboard, it works for everybody; “easy to use” means I understand fully how to key data, because I can do it my way, I don’t have to learn somebody else’s methods.

Many folks also love the control of the data presentation – if you don’t like how the screen or page looks, you are fully empowered to make the changes you want. “Easy to use” means I have complete control over what I see, and what I can make other people see (oh yes, there’s the ability to manipulate the figures and formulas, too).

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, folks want their enterprise apps to have the same ease of use, or they compare ERP and custom developed apps’ “ease of use” against Excel – typically, an unfair comparison. The challenge for the developer / configurator is to come up with a reasonably good design, that abstracts the intricacies of the system below. The best interface designers can make any platform “user friendly” – and any hack can make something difficult to use. Just because there’s a graphical user interface involved, doesn’t guarantee ease of use. Actually, I think it’s much easier to mess up a GUI front end, because there are so many options.

Remember, there is no single, obviously intuitive front end – people switch between interfaces on the ‘net all the time. Compare navigation on sites like Amazon, Yahoo, Google, MSN, and all of those boutique sites, design firms, art / architecture firms, etc. Some general similarities, sure, but so many web design firms working hard to differentiate their sites. And yet – purchases get made, information is discovered, and new interfaces are trumpeted for their innovation.

I suppose the only thing they have in common is a strong desire to empathize and anticipate the needs and actions of the end user / site visitor – which is what you need to really think about when working on that custom software, or that Excel spreadsheet, if you want something that’s “easy”.

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James MacLennan

... is the Managing Partner at Maker Turtle LLC, a digital consultancy focused on creating value in ways that align with your strategy and drive engagement with employees, customers, and stakeholders. He is an active creator, providing thought leadership through on-line & print publications, and public speaking / keynotes.