Life can get complicated sometimes, business life even more so; and that’s just the relationship side of things. And as with our personal lives, mastering the fine art of compromise in business is necessary to ensure forward motion. We learn how to compromise early, after all what is the point of a negotiation if not to enable two parties to arrive at an adequate level of mutual compromise on price in exchange for a product or service. But I think compromise – as necessary a commercial lubricant as it is – has an evil twin in software usability.
Learning to use early business apps was straightforward enough, if sometimes a little cryptic to begin with. However once you’d managed to memorise the different menus and keystrokes, away you went. Watching people use first and second-generation business apps was productivity personified, played to the accompaniment of the sound of hundreds of key clicks as they rattled through reams of order entry documents, often without even looking at the screen.
Software used to be billed as ‘Easy to use’ or ‘User friendly’ but apparently both these terms should have been banned by advertising standards councils in recent years because watching someone using most business software today is like watching an antelope trying to open a packet of cigarettes*.Why?
The first is competition. The business software industry has been locked in Mortal Kombat with itself for years where ‘Bigger, better, faster more…’ has been the only battlefield directive. This is entirely understandable in the context of a capitalist economy where the short-term ability to compete determines the long-term ability to survive, but the unsightly wreckage of this functionality arms race lies strewn across the screens of every modern day business app.
In simplistic terms, software that was once simple has gotten progressively more and more complicated and moreover, we have learned to accept this as the unavoidable price of progress. In other words, we compromise. Which conveniently is the second reason software is over complicated today.
We tolerate and don’t complain. And even if we did complain, software companies probably wouldn’t do anything thing about it.
Because if you’ve just spent the last twenty years painstakingly engaged in the software development equivalent of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, (I know it only took Michelangelo four years, indulge me), and one day the Pope drops by to review the finished work, screws up his face and says ”Don’t you think it looks a bit busy? …” – it’s going to be a short conversation. And anyway, no long established software company would ever lightly entertain the prospect of a radical redesign even if it was the right thing to do, for fear of disenfranchising its entire user community should the redesign veer too far from the accepted, if dysfunctional norm.
After twenty years of using business software but after only two months of using Xero myself, one of the things I really like about Xero is that – in gamer parlance – it only has one level of difficulty; Easy – and there are no Hard or Expert settings.
I’ll readily concede that this is partly because Xero is still relatively young and fresh – just as its older software counterparts once were – but also because usability and interaction design have been foundation priorities from the start, both concepts which didn’t exist when Xero’s old world counterparts first emerged.
Why is ease of use design and user feedback so important to Xero?
Because our monthly pay-as-you-go billing model means that we effectively renegotiate with every Xero customer every month. In order words, we need to convince our customers to stick with using Xero 12,000 times a month, and the moment any customer feels like they’re being asked to compromise more than they’re comfortable with, they can drop us like a stone.
That’s putting your money where your mouth is and that’s why Xero doesn’t have a Hard Mode.
* Thanks to Stephen Fry for his awesome software usability simile.