Usability in enterprise software

Why usability in enterprise software is so important

02 MARCH, 2015 – BERT NIENHUIS

Four years ago, I was thinking about how we could use our data masking and subset technology in such a way that customers would really like to use it. At the time, these technologies were part of our data integration suite and far too complex for most of the potential customers. The market was, and I still think is, divided into two categories of tools. On the one hand, you have small and limited tools for database administrators and on the other hand complex data integration suites, with lots of functionality besides subsetting and masking.

“Is there room for another category?” I asked myself. Back then, we decided to build two products specific for subsetting and masking test data with a great focus on usability. However, the process was not as easy as planned.

Usability, Productivity, Visual Design, et cetera..

When we decided that usability was one of the core principles in developing these new products, I had a lot of discussions with developers, users, sales and management. What would this focus on usability mean? Would the user interface only get a “fresh lick of paint”? Would advanced users be limited in their possibilties? And is this “usability-thing’” not only for the consumer market?

There was a lot of confusion about the different topics. Especially the difference between how somethings looks and how something works was a recurring discussion. Marty Cagan, author of the book Inspired: How to create products that customer love, wrote a good blog on the differences between aesthetics and usability.

Base principles 
We wrote down some basic principles to make the term usability a bit more tangible.

  • Easy installation; Our software had to be easy to install, like it was another text writer. I am amazed at how many times I have to read a comprehensive manual just to install a product.
  • Limited dependencies; I wanted to reduce the dependencies between our products and the installation of third party software. In previous versions users got complex errors when certain dependencies were not met. In most of the cases additional software (mostly database specific) had to be downloaded and installed. We have now included most of the third party software in our own installers.
  • Learnability; The learnability of a product is largely dependent on how easy a user can perform certain tasks when they start using the product. When designing the user interaction and interface we’ve made a layering which ensures that users are first confronted with the most important tasks. Secondary functionality was pushed to a lower layer. It was still easy to find, but out of sight, so it did not interfere with the most important tasks.
  • Efficiency; Once users have learned the design, they must be able to quickly perform tasks. We have done this by designing several user interactions which lead to the same result. For example: in DATPROF Subset, the most important task can be performed in five different ways.

Lessons learned

Now, 4 year later, multiple implementations wiser, the two products are a great success. We still benefit from making usability a large part of our product design, even in cases we did not forsee when initially developing the products. Because of the great focus on usability; the learning curve is low and the training program can be very short. This also means our support people can focus on the real problems instead of wasting time on telling customers how to use the product correctly. Even when demonstrating our products for first time, customers understand immediately what they see. This way they can determine for themselves if this solution fits their needs.

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