Does enterprise IT know what Google is?

Imagine an investment bank, a trader has a requirement for a tool to screen stocks. The requirement is to select stocks based upon different parameters, so for example find companies with a market capitalisation between a selected range, and a P/E ratio, Dividend Yield and Net Profit Margin between other selected ranges. And maybe the ability to add additional parameters.

Typically the process will be for these requirements to be captured by the Business Analyst who acts as the conduit to the development team. Nowhere is the user interface explicitly referenced – it will almost certainly be articulated in the reality of the current systems; what the BA knows and understands. Despite the iterface being delivered through a browser, the developers are not web developers. Inevitably the finished product will be functionally correct, it meets the requirements, but it will be clunky: select parameters > search > results… because it reflects the requirements as the trader put them “I want to do this and this and this, press a button and get a list back“.

So what are the chances of an internally developed investment bank application looking like Google finance’s Stock Screener? And what would your trader rather have?

Is this the most stupid question to ask?

Someone from the Barclaycard research centre rang me today doing some customer research. It is great to know they take the customer experience seriously – many of the questions were around my experience with the brand. But then they dropped this corker, not once, but twice.

To what extent do your other credit card providers offer innovative products

How important is it to you that your credit card provider offers innovative products

How on earth did those questions get through and on to the list? What is an “innovative product” when talking about credit cards or financial services? What is an “innovative product” to Joe Public? Maybe I can relate to an iPhone as such, but my credit card? Product innovation is hardly something that you or I consider when we pull a credit card out of the wallet.

“Innovative products” are something that marketeers talk about, they are not in the credit card users lexicon.

Real world forms

In the real world, when I get an application form I’ll flick through the pages and have a look at what is required. I can choose which fields I complete in whatever order I like. If I want to take a break half way through I can. I can complete it when I like and how I like.

So why aren’t web forms like that?

The usual format for a web form starts with some copy that describes the form (which people skim through at best). The user clicks to the next page and the form commences. There may be a step indicator showing progress through the form, but almost certainly progress through it will be linear. You have to complete each page before progressing to the next. If you are lucky you’ll be able to click to previous completed steps. But the experience is nothing like a real-world form. And when was the last time a real-world paper form “timed out” half way through, demanding the user to start over again if they left it idle for ten minutes?

The web forms we see today are a relic of their tecnological past. There is no reason why they must be linear, (and if there is logic in the form, there is no reason why the user can’t explore the different routes – you do that with a paper based form). There is no reason why the user can’t click to whatever page in the process they like (just like with the paper form). There is no reason why a page must be completed before progressing to the next. There is no reason why the form should time out and forget everything the user has entered. Fields can be saved as they are completed against an anonymous user, until the user wants to provide personal credentials.

Bottom line – the web has moved on. Instead of reflecting technical constraints of yesterday, it can adopt more real-world metaphors. But do we have the courage to start introducing new paradigms? Are users, information architects and usability experts so ingrained with broken web metaphors that they will shun a new model, (a real world model) of completing a form?

So here’s a rough example. It’s an application form for a savings account. Ignore the content, field labels etc, it is more the model that is illustrated.

1. The user can move between the sections (tabs) to see the fields that are required. There is clear feedback on each tab that it has not been completed. The “Direct Debit” section is optional hence no indicator. The ability to save the application is seperate.

Application form, step 1, nothing filled out

2. The user selects “Bank details”. They’ve not filled out all the fields on the first tab “Personal details”, but it doesn’t matter. There is clear feedback that this tab is yet to be completed.

Second tab on the application form, the first tab has not been completed

3. The user clicks right through to the confirmation tab. There is nothing to confirm so the page remains blank, with a prompt to fill out other sections.

Step 3 of the application form

4. When sections are completed the indicator on the tab changes to show completion. Here the user has completed step two ahead of step one.

almost there

5. Finally, when all sections are completed the user can review the entire form.

Confirmation screen

I’m not saying this is perfect, it’s a start. A start to re-thinking the way we design forms on the web and think about modelling them on real world behaviour instead of technical constraints of the past.

Will corporate websites remain spotty teenagers or will they grow up to be beautiful?

In the corporate webspace most design is little more than mediocre. Interaction design has changed little since coporations first realised that this is a channel thery should exploit. Web 2.0 is slowly making in-roads with basic use of Ajax functionality, but there is nothing that is really breaking the mould. Despite its infancy (for most organisations ‘e’ is barely 10 years old, Amazon, the granddaddy of eBuisiness is only 13, born in 1995), conservatism rules; the corporate web is just not growing up. It would be easy to blame the technologists for being risk adverse- for having invested in architectures and frameworks that do not allow innovation. REST and all that declarative goodness may be great, but of little interst if you have invested in a propiertary framework that does not support it. But the business is also responsible for tardy innovation.

It doesn’t know what is possible. A miss-understanding of accesibility clobbers rich interactions; “no javascript” becomes the mantra, despite the guidance being “provide alternatives” and progressive enhancements making basic and rich interactions possible with the same code. And maybe as usability testing becomes the norm, and testing concepts with consumers throughout the product lifecycle is baked into the process, this is acutally the final nail in the creative coffin. Let me explain.

When you are developing new features or propositions it is only right that you should conduct market research, talk to your customers and get feedback to refine your ideas. But sometimes you need to ignore what you are being told and challenge the perceived wisdom. Imagine the scenario; you are developing a social networking site. You recruit a bunch of consumers to participate in user testing sessions. They match the socio-demographic profile of your target audience, they use the internet more than five hours a week. You let them loose on your concept boards and prototype. They like what they see, they like the blogs… but commenting? The feedback is that none of them would leave comments. So what do you do? Kill the commenting on the basis that the users who matched your “average” profile would not use this feature.

I’m not saying that if you are building a conventional, transactional experience; a retail shop, a financial services provider, you should not test the proposition with users that match the target profile. But beware that they will steer your thinking into the realm of the ordinary, the expected and the average. Try testing it with trend setters, gamers, teens, mybe even anti-personas to push the boundries and harvest real innovation insights.

And maybe testing the proposition is not needed at all. But don’t leave the design to the comittee or the accountants. Sometimes it is more important to have a real visionary driving the product development. Apple is a great example of this, no more so than with the iPhone bounce. When you scroll down a list, when you come to the end, the last item “bounces”. Where’s the “business value” in this? Isn’t this gold plating in the extreme? The development of this bounce will not have been for free, it will have come at a cost. This could have been a financial (more development effort) it could have been at the expense of another feature, or it could have been time. In most organisations this would not get get through the design by commitee. Apple can do such great things with their UI because they’ve got a visionary at the helm who understands the importance of good design and is passionate about it, and their customers become to expect it.

Cutting waste: dump PowerPoint and invest in a camera

So you’ve run a workshop and generated ideas. There’s a list of points on the flipchart and diagrams on the whiteboard. What now? Write it all up in Word or commit the drawings to PowerPoint?

Stop! Ask yourself why you are doing this? Is it just to record the ideas, to socialise back to the group involved in the workshop? Creating PowerPoint slides is not always an inconsiderable effort. It takes time. That effort is waste.

Think of the purpose of what you are doing. Then take photographs of the flipcharts and whiteboard diagrams, paste them into PowerPoint, and think of how much time and effort you have just saved.

What not how

All too often the business thinks in terms of the “how” rather than the “what”. But why should they care how something is to be implemented? Why doesn’t the business state their requirements in terms of their desired outcomes? What is it that they want? Then, and only then should anybody think about the “how”.

Sadly, focusing upon the how rather than the what is a driving factor behind so much of the mediocrity in enterprise software. Rather than stating “what” (they want) in terms of their dreams and aspirations, the business express their requirements in terms of what they perceive IT can deliver. “What” could never be the design quality of Apple (visionary) because they believe the “how” (their IT team) is not Apple (mediocre). But wouldn’t your average developer rather be building something visionary than something mediocre?

Innovation and the idea approval index

I’ve written in the past about organisations setting up test and learn capabilities, and how languages such as Ruby on Rails make this so much easier. Sadly, even with the best will in the world it is not unusual for these internal skunk works outfits to fail. Scott Berkun’s recent post gives a good reason why; they score highly on the Idea Approval Index where the higher the number, the harder the innovation is.

If you are going to be serious about test and learn it is essential to remove barriers to its success, and that means removing bands of bureaucracy and sign-off. Identify the number of approvals you assume will be required then plan how to eliminate them. What strategies can you put in place to keep stakeholders in the loop, but at a distance so they can’t kill the innovation before it’s given oxygen to breathe. Realise that what is being tested is a “beta” and market it as such. Give clear terms and conditions, use controlled environments (for example testing on staff within the internal network), anything to prevent it being subject to the usual legal / compliance / architectural constraints.

Unleashing innovation at speed

It sounds clichéd and old hat, but it is true. Truer now than ever before; the web is an enabler for new ideas. It provides you with the tools for disruptive innovation. Sadly for too many organisations it has become a hindrance.

A recurring theme with many organisations is the length of time it takes to take an idea to market. Especially in retail financial services, where you would expect lead times to be short it is not unusual for innovations to take a year to implement. This seems crazy, it’s not as if there is a physical product to manufactured.

So where are the hold ups? More often than not, they are rooted in the organisational structure. Innovative products often cross business boundaries; whilst customers only see the a single brand, different product teams only see what they are responsible for. They have own objectives that often conflict with other parts of the business; gaining agreement and consensus across all parties can often be a time consuming and painful experience that slows and often kills innovation.

Then there is the technology. Changes to systems have to be scheduled (along with every other request). Unproven ideas are put to the back of the queue. The business starts to perceive IT as a hindrance rather than an enabler and lines of conflict are drawn up.

Channel is the next hurdle to cross. Typically a face to face channel or telephony will be easiest, but getting something on the web? Now a new area of the business needs to be involved, the Internet Channel Team who interface between the business and IT. They’ve got to design web pages, get the creative done, produce requirements for technology to build (and schedule into deployment for which the dates are even further into the future), do usability testing… Long lead times are inevitable.

And then, before the innovation sees the light of day, someone new comes in to rationalise the product portfolio, the innovation doesn’t quite fit in with their new priorities and it is quietly ditched. This half hearted attempt at innovation has taken a year, cost in excess of a million and has come to nothing.

There has to be a better way.

There is. Do things at speed. You can start by sticking some amphetamines into ideation phase. Someone’s got an idea; identify who has a vested interest in it succeeding (or failing) and get them into a room to thrash it out. This doesn’t need to take long. Workshops are best limited to 90 minutes at a time (after that people get Blackberry withdrawal symptoms and loose interest). But if all the stakeholders are geographically dispersed, a structured day’s off-site might be the best solution. Avoid letting people dial in or video conference, this is one meeting where people have to be there in physical presence. Also avoid having too many people in the room, especially when forming ideas (there is a trade-off between having the right people and too many people to make the process unmanageable). Start with the users, the customers, the people whose lives will be changed by the idea. Scribble out personas -describe who they are, what their goals are, the perceptions of your company, of technology. Print out pictures of people that represent the personas, rip out photos from magazines, anything to bring them to life. As the idea takes shape, turn it into pictures. Draw out the customer experience. What would the persona do at each stage. Far better to do this than write it down in a document that can be open to interpretation. Illustrate the touch points. What does technology need to do. (Can we be pragmatic and use roller skate implementation rather than getting bogged down in an integration quagmire?)

Now is where it gets interesting. There once was a time when you would need to invest time and money into producing a heavyweight business model and business case for the innovation. You still need a business case, but at this stage it probably doesn’t need to be too robust; make some basic assumptions then test it. All too often business cases are built on flaky assumptions; build something quick, test it and get real data to build your models on. Again, this is about doing things at speed; a couple of weeks after the first workshop there is no reason why a small team of developers can’t be actually building something to bring the idea to life. So the team is using Ruby on Rails to build a proof of concept. There may be disquiet that this doesn’t fit into the current technology stack – doesn’t matter, it is a proof of concept. Six weeks later the proof of concept is done. It is not a static, prototype that demonstrates linear page flows, it is fully featured and fully functional. It can be usability tested (but more likely you were doing that on wire frames alongside the build). What then? In two months you’ve taken your idea and turned it into something tangible.

Why not put it into the market for real. Whilst IT might not want this Ruby “thing” on their stack, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible and can’t be done. Large organisations have a testing ground of consumers inside a secure environment – their staff. Use them to beta pilot the idea? Friendly customers are delighted to be part of product development – put it out to a small and selected group of customers, and have some smoke and mirrors processes to handle fulfilment. The objective is to prove the viability of the idea, get data to make informed decisions and make your collective mind up quickly. To fail fast or succeed cheaply.

Have you considered what the legal team will say?

Oh dear. The lawyers are getting involved. So you’ve got this great idea, you want to get closer to your customers, get them talking about you, with you, to you… You are thinking about building out a social networking proposition, leveraging your branding to ensure traction and reason for people to visit. Let customers upload videos and pictures of themselves using your products. Hey! You even decide to let your customers build your taxonomy through tagging. Lots of user generated content all around your product. Your brand.

And then the lawyers get involved.

You discover this is not going to be a uTube or a Wikipedia. It is not going to be the wisdom of the crowd. It’s got to be moderated first. And not any old moderation.

The legal team are insisting that all content be moderated by the Corporation before it goes public. Now that may not sound as bad as all that- some sort of moderation was always going to be inevitable – you want to be able to pull anything that is obviously inappropriate or damaging to the brand. But moderating everything before it goes live? Suddenly the proposition becomes expensive. Who is going to do the moderation? And the customer experience becomes compromised. What sort of social network would it be if it didn’t have immediacy? Any Twitter functionality is clearly going to be out. So before you get too excited about your great web 2.0 idea, think about how those party poopers the lawyers who are going to get rich out of killing you dream.

What is your business

Should “the business” care about IT? Should an investment bank trader know anything about XML, or a marketer know anything about SQL? Probably not. Even less so should they be talking to their IT colleagues of their requirements in these terms. The business should speak to IT in a language of value driven requirements rather than implementation detail. What is the outcome you need or want, not how you think IT should deliver or implement it.

Yet in many organisations (especially where IT has historically had a track record of failure), the business has taken a greater interest in IT delivery. They start talking the language of the techie. When this starts to happen business operations no longer see the clarity of their business. They see systems. In an investment bank setting: the trade is booked in Zeus, settlements are handled by Minotaur, payments by Socrates. Corporate actions are handled in Hades. Depending upon the geographic region, client management might be handled by Tomsys, Dicksys or Harrysys. You ask a business person what do they do and they talk in terms of systems. Getting down to the underlying requirements of what they actually want to do is hard. Innovation and creative thinking are hard because they always return to what the limitations of the current systems are. They focus upon the requirement for a Reconciliation System rather than asking why there needs to be any reconciliation in the first place.

So here’s a suggestion. Act dumb. Forget everything you know about the way you do things and go back to first principles. How would things be if we were starting from scratch? How would you describe your business intent (not the what you do now, rather what outcomes you really want to achieve) in simple terms to a complete novice. I doubt the word “system” would come into the description.

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