There has been a lot of discussion recently in the blogosphere about how crummy graphical user interfaces (GUI) have been an impediment for broad adoption of enterprise software. The genesis of this debate was blog post from a New York Times writer, Khoi Vinh. He makes the important point (among many) that the usability enterprise software does not have the same level of critique as consumer software. He is quite right. Others have weighed in on the importance of focusing on the GUI. Dennis Howlett sums up much of this discussion in his post. I certainly have weighed in on this topic before in this post. As you might guess from my previous posts on this topic, I do think this is pretty important. I get asked a lot by clients about which vendor has the easiest to use product. I think GUIs are like beauty -- it is in the eye of the beholder. One is heavily influenced by what one is used to using and what one intrinsically thinks is easy to use. Since I get the good fortune to see many solutions, my perception is a lot different from someone who has been using the same particular system for the last fifteen years.
However, the bar for highly usable applications clearly is being raised as the line between consumer and business technologies blurs and digital natives enter the workforce. As more enterprise software capabilities move to employees and line managers (typically via self-service applications), the consumer software experience from Amazon.com to Google Search to Facebook is fast becoming the standard that needs to be met or exceeded. However, we must recognize that there is not one right answer to the question of usability. The important thing, from an enterprise perspective, is that you select and implement applications that are highly approachable and usable for your users. If all of users already use Outlook, for example, then maybe leveraging Outlook for a new application would be a pretty good idea. Many times though, it will not be that simple. So, it is good to get users involved in the selection process, especially for self-service applications. HR and IT folks have a different perspective on usability from line managers and employees. HR folks know all of the HR jargon and IT folks are used to figuring out how to use many technologies. Line managers and employees have a whole different viewpoint. They have become very used to buying things on Amazon or searching on Google. However, for the most part, they do not understand HR jargon like "competency proficiency levels or merit matrices". They also do not intrinsically understand, like an IT person, that a button labeled "Details" would take you to a new screen that may require additional detailed information to be entered. I will end the rant now, but ignore these differences in perspective at your own peril, it is one of the major reasons self-service initiatives fail.