User Experience in EPM: What Is This Thing Called “Design”?

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In a three-part series on the topic of user experience (UX), I’ll help you to understand the role of product design and user experience in the creation and evolution of the Host Analytics Enterprise Performance Platform and how it affects you, the buyer or user of EPM solutions.

In this first installment, I’ll introduce the concepts of design, graphic design, the designer role, interaction design, the science of human factors, the Design Thinking problem-solving method, and the role of Apple and Steve Jobs in shaping our industry.

 Design Is…What Exactly?

In the 1980s, the word design was not yet mainstream. Its street use mainly referred to the fashion industry and, in that context, typically referred to “Designer Jeans.” Those from Jordache, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Calvin Klein were the frontrunners. The iconic ad was Brooke Shields purring “Nothing comes between me and my Calvin Kleins.” Men partook heavily in the trend as well. Remember, these were the waning days of disco.

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 Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri wear Marithé et François Girbaud jeans in Flashdance (Wikipedia)

While in college at this time, I discovered and pursued graphic design. Graphic design is essentially visual communication. It’s the creation of production specifications for visual communication via text and both static and moving images – referred to as graphic communication.

The original graphic designers produced the end product by hand. Scribes recorded business deals on clay tablets or papyrus. Remote monks produced bibles via calligraphy and illustration. Then, with Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, monks produced bibles via the composition of movable type and illustration printing plates to be used for relatively mass production of printed artifacts. In these cases, the same person either produced the product by hand or created the tool used to produce identical copies of the product. The same person often performed the production as well.

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 Icons from a graphic design signage system for the U.S. National Park Service. (Wikipedia)

 What Do Designers Do?

Designers of printed communications compose artwork – again, words and images – which are typically photographed and converted into the photo-etched printing plates used by high-speed printing presses. For most mass-produced products today, the roles of product specifier (designer) and product producer have been largely divided. Designers create the specification for the tools and/or processes used to produce a product or deliver a service. Other people create those tools and/or make the products or deliver the service. Today’s printers rarely design, but rather print what is specified. Cars are built by production line workers.

Successful designers are not artists or authors, but rather facilitators and servants. They need to anticipate and satisfy the needs and preferences of those who will pay attention to and/or buy and consume the message or product created. While this calls for artistry in execution, what’s produced is an agent that facilitates the greater outcome of sustainable value creation in a business or functional context. Designers are in part slaves to fashion. The scribbled logo in the movie poster below was cutting edge for us in school at the time, but quickly became passé, just like the torn shirt and leg warmers worn by Jennifer Beals in the movie Flashdance.

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 An example of ‘80s graphic design, used to promote the movie Flashdance, 1983.(Wikipedia)

Whatever is designed and produced must be feasible (it needs to work), viable (it needs to serve a sustainable business need), and desirable (people must accept, if not enjoy, the result). Job satisfaction, for example, comes in part from seeing people use and enjoy something you helped create.

Design Today

Fast Forward to 2017. Design is seemingly everywhere. Efficient, globalized production and distribution have brought consumer products to much of the world. If not eliminated as a differentiator, product reliability and safety have been mostly commoditized. At the very least, they’ve been segmented into tiered quality classes with clear expectations for build quality and performance. In this world where product differentiation based on performance is more difficult, brands have turned to the factor of how their products look and work as a way of standing out and increasing value.

In the technology sector, it was Apple, of course, that pioneered and set the standard for how good form (the product’s “look”) and good behavior (the product’s “feel”) could elevate common or inferior functionality to the status of being irresistible to buyers. What made Apple’s designs even greater was the harmony between their proprietary hardware and software, both seeming to come from the skilled hand of the same person (Steve Jobs and his maniacal obsession with every detail).

Design’s fundamental practice – the process of creating plans and specifications for things to be produced and used by other people – is quite similar regardless of what’s being produced. Architects and designers of clothing, cars, packages, retail stores, and even songs, movies, and businesses, share similar basic techniques for getting the results right.

These timeless methods have, over the past decade or so, been collected into an overarching approach to problem-solving known as Design Thinking. Design Thinking optimizes the process of finding out what people want, what product or service would satisfy them, and how to deliver the resulting value to them in a sustainable manner using the feasible/viable/desirable framework mentioned above.

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The Design Thinking framework. (Wikipedia)

Now, what does this have to do with enterprise performance management (EPM) software?

Design for Software

In the 1990s, the role of user interface (UI) design was made familiar. Most software products have the need to “interface” with people. UI design is the practice of deciding how a computer system presents its data, capability, and status – or what it has, does, and is doing– to its human operator, and how this operator tells the computer what to do. Interfaces evolved from early matrices of physical switches and levers to punch cards, then to keyboards and display screens, and eventually to mice, graphical UIs, and voice. In the early days, software was used to solve complex and mission-critical problems, such as to decipher enemy communication codes, perform complex math calculations, orchestrate the world’s air travel, and send men to the moon.

Because the operators of these systems were often genius-level, educated, specialist, and/or highly motivated individuals, they were able and willing to tolerate a UI that was crude and obtuse by today’s standards. With today’s broad use of computing for routine tasks, an ultra-simple UI is mandatory if a user’s desired task outcome is to be worth the effort to learn and carry out the necessary input commands. At its core, a computing UI exists to facilitate the dialog between the computer system and its operator or user.

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A keypunch card user interface. Any hanging chads? (Wikipedia)

Graphic design was always about communication. As UI display technologies advanced to enable more elaborate graphical displays, graphic designers gravitated into user interface design, albeit not without overcoming some big hurdles.

For one, graphic design is primarily about one-way communication from a sender – a magazine editor, book publisher, municipal road network, billboard advertiser, etc. – to a receiver. Communicating with a computer is bi-directional, or interactive. The user and the system act as both senders and receivers (computers, of course, also enable communication among multiple users, as with email and social media).

Computer software is also what I call formless, malleable, boundless, and evolving. When compared with books, buildings, coffee makers, and traditional artworks, a software product is much more difficult to “see”, and understand, in its entirety. A website can only be seen one page at a time. Its full form and volume are only hinted at through its table of contents and the act of its exploration.

Our view of the software world is mediated through two-dimensional windows of varying size, and our instructions to it are sent via keyboards and pointing devices (and now voice, etc.). User interface, or interaction, designers need to design not only how software programs look (the fonts, colors, and layouts of their presentation) but also how they work (how a user can get a program to do what is wanted). This is, in many ways, a much more complex and difficult intellectual challenge than the design of static two-dimensional messages.

While related to other interactive products, such as cars or musical instruments, software must reveal its form via a two-dimensional presentation that’s in some ways quite restrictive, but in others limited only by one’s imagination. The UI, while important, provides only the face of our enormous digital machines. The real machines are hidden among boxes and wires strung around the globe, carrying out the work we give to them. But as the face of such processes, the UI has an outsized effect on the actual and perceived day-to-day well-being of the machine’s users. The situation in fact mirrors how we interface with other people. Faces and their expressions are like the user interface to the body and soul.

The science that makes the built world tolerable and usable for people, whether physical or virtual, is called human factors. Designers need to internalize basic human factors best practices in order to design products that are legible, understandable, fit the size and shape our bodies, and don’t kill us. When designers aren’t sure what will work best for a new product design, they conduct design research to discover how real users work with current products.

With the same users, new product designs are tested before being built and deployed. Such testing measures the true metric driving the product design effort: user experience. User experience is measured with data obtained by asking key questions:

  •  What is the experience of the person using our product?
  • Are they able to accomplish their expected goals?
  • Are they able to do so efficiently?
  • Do they feel confident and in control when doing so?
  • Are they inclined to trust the product and use it for more varied and challenging tasks?
  • Would they recommend its use to others?

Designing Alongside Engineers and Business Owners

Because it’s a full-time job to learn and execute such a challenging product development role, the UX discipline is now staffed by specialist designers, researchers, and prototypers. As with their architect, product design, and graphic design predecessors, UX professionals produce product specifications that drive the work of developers – the computer programmers who write the actual software code that constitutes the product – a task that is often artistic in its own special ways.

Initially, just as with the early producers of graphics and physical products, developers designed and created the UIs of their software products. Inevitably, however, markets and users demanded a level of product sophistication that only teams of specialized experts could produce.

How does the production of cloud software compare to, say, that of hammers? With the latter, a designer specifies the shape of the wooden handle and steel head, according to the business needs determined by a product manager. An engineer creates molds and lathe settings for the creation of multiple exact replicas, and production line workers create and assemble the parts. For the former, a designer interprets business requirements and then defines how a product feature should look and work. An engineer then writes the code to enable the feature to appear and run efficiently whenever needed. Then a technical operations team maintains the delivery system – the databases, servers, and connections needed to run the computing service.

There are, of course, many more specialized roles (system architects, researchers, project managers, and others) and nuances to these roles. The work is often collaborative and iterative rather than serial. The basic landscape and flow, however, are similar.

Design at Host Analytics

At Host Analytics, we’ve spent years building and optimizing an EPM software machine: a cloud-based platform able to run an organization’s modeling, planning, analysis, reporting, and consolidation processes. In 2015, we began a concerted effort to significantly improve our product’s user experience. If you use our product now, you’ve surely already noticed the improvements we’ve made. However, our effort continues – and in fact never ends.

As we continue to renovate our current product’s look and feel, we’re also designing and building new capabilities to improve how users track processes, understand their company’s key performance indicators, and model potential business outcomes. Software is boundless and evolving. Our design team will work to maintain Host Analytics as the industry leader in trust, functionality, and user experience for cloud EPM.

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Detail from a screen planned for Host Analytics’ Winter 17 release.

This lesson has presented the fundamentals of design as it applies to software product design. In lessons 2 & 3, we’ll look at the elements of UX design – appearance, behavior, and functionality – and the unique product design challenges posed by EPM software (lesson 2), and finally, the unique UX benefits provided by the Host Analytics platform (lesson 3). Stay tuned!

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Posted by on February 8, 2017
John Armitage

John Armitage is a strategic digital product designer and design practice leader. Since entering the software industry in the early '90s, he has performed principal designer and team/practice leadership roles in various consulting and development organizations. Since 2002 he has worked in the enterprise software arena, with user experience design teams at Peoplesoft, BusinessObjects, SAP, and Host Analytics. In six years at SAP, John designed new product and business concepts related to cloud computing, social media, collaboration, business networks, and visual analytics. He studied liberal arts, graphic design, and business at Miami University in Ohio, and earned his MFA in graphic design from Rhode Island School of Design.

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