4 Jul 2010
Many, many years ago, my first ‘mobile’ phone was built into my car. My next one was a small briefcase that I hauled around if I needed to make calls. Over the years phones got smaller but essentially they did the same thing: they allowed incoming and outgoing calls. Then ‘smartphones’ emerged. As well as making calls one could have a diary or run an application. Whilst ownership of this type of phone provided some sort of geek bragging rights, the reality was that they did not work particularly well and were impractical to integrate with other computers and servers and thus were often more hassle than value. The Blackberry was the first device to really make email easy and it integrated superbly well with Microsoft Exchange, meaning that my diary, calendar and email were always up to date on both my computer and my phone. However, certainly in the early days, the Blackberry was a one-trick pony. Other than the email suite, the device did not offer much more. I played around with a number of Windows Mobile and Symbian phones but, despite being comfortable with technology, I always found them hard to use well.
Then I got an iPhone and I was blown over. Every element of the user interface worked well. It was thought through, logical and had great design. It was a joy to use. What was truly impressive was how Apple had created an environment whereby other developers could create applications to work on the iPhone that were doing vastly different things but despite this still functioned in a similar fashion and were intuitive to use. No other device on the market managed to combine this flexibility with ease of use. Rival capable devices were typically hard to use and each application had its own learning curve. How was it that all those rival companies that had big R&D budgets, numerous talented engineers and the same customer research data had either failed to recognise the requirement or failed to deliver it? What had no doubt been regarded as impossible had been achieved by Apple.
For a decade I have been running businesses that have invested heavily in creating software delivered business solutions. I have observed that it is relatively easy to get developers who can write code that is reliable and indeed can engineer complex algorithms. What is really difficult is creating a user interface that is a joy to use. The wider the range of functionality the harder this is. The more need there is to add an extra menu option or button or to create inconsistent operating rules that simply confuse users. If a person’s hobby or career require mastery of complex software there is a chance that the individual will invest the required time to learn how to properly use it. However most people are not this committed and they simply give up and either stop using the product or stick to a fraction of its real capabilities.
In February 2009 my company started building an online solution for outplacement. MyWorkSearch was designed to provide the information a job seeker requires to manage their job search and the tools to assist the person in achieving this. We spent over six months creating it and it incorporates considerable expertise and tremendous functionality. Those who spent time using MyWorkSearch were extremely complimentary, however many also said that it was daunting. Too many options, menus and features. Unless one spent time getting to know the product one could find it overwhelming. Over the next several months we made numerous improvements and this certainly helped matters, however it was clear we had no iPhone. Our competition did not either, however this was not the point. My colleagues and I felt that just because most people accepted that big software applications had to be complex, we should not.
So in December 2009 we started work on version 2 of MyWorkSearch. We met with designers, usability experts and e-learning professionals. We put together a team and have spent over six months intensively re-thinking MyWorkSearch and then implementing these new ideas.
On Sunday 11th July we will be upgrading to this new version. I am so very, very pleased with what our team have produced. We have been uncompromising in our efforts to push beyond functionality and achieve usability. Whenever we have been stuck the iPhone has been a clear signal that the intractable does have solutions. In a previous post I wrote about our observation that some users did not take full advantage of the resources we were making available and appeared to be giving up. I hope that improving usability will make a difference to this. We will be monitoring the outcomes and this is a topic I will be returning to. Meanwhile I want to thank Steve Jobs and his team at Apple. Sometimes it takes someone else to show that the bar was set too low. As well as making a great phone Apple have also contributed to what is fast becoming the most powerful and effective tool available to those in career transition.