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Business technology: Usability is transformative, demand is cross-generational

The days of imposing technology on a user base are over. Today’s Apple inspired consumer technologies require no training and minimal support; and users of every generation, from millennials to the board, increasingly expect the same experience from business applications.

Yet while developers continue to argue whether or not it is possible to deliver the functionality required in a business application and still meet customer style experience expectations, the truth is that users – especially senior, board level users - are increasingly turning their back on technologies that fail to deliver tangible, personal benefits.

Attitudes have changed fundamentally in the past few months and, from software developers to IT procurers, the quality of user experience now needs to take centre stage in every piece of business software.

Generational Divide

Debate continues to rage about the challenges of assimilating the next generation into the workforce, the way in which this ‘born to iPad’ generation will respond to the clunky business applications that still dominate the experience in most companies today. For those brought up on the intuitive user experience delivered by innovative, Apple inspired App developers, the lack of sophistication and – most bizarre – requirement for training associated with traditional applications will be anathema. How will they respond?

Yet while software developers ponder this question and wonder how they might evolve products in response over the next few years, they would do well to look to another generation, one that is still – quite wrongly – perceived as technology averse. From Directors to Trustees, senior management have a fierce approach to technology: “Does it make my life easier?” If not they simply will not use it.

While the vast majority of the workforce is struggling to understand why the sophistication and ease of use available in the consumer world is not mirrored at work, it is this senior management generation that has the power and influence to ignore useless – and unusable - technology. While it is still – just – possible to impose difficult to use software on the rest of the business, those in a position of power can and will resist.

They are not, however, in any way technology averse. They have actively embraced mobile and tablet technologies, are avid App users and will wholeheartedly adopt any business solution if, and only if, it delivers real benefits in productivity and collaboration.

Misunderstood Resistance

Board meeting portals are a prime example of this generational misunderstanding. The vast majority of these solutions simply replicate the paper based provision of board papers online. And, as a result, struggle to get good levels of adoption. Why? Because simply telling a CEO or Trustee that this approach is greener or makes it easier for the secretariat tasked with distributing information is not a good enough reason for that individual to make a change to the way he or she works. To be adopted, the technology has to make the life of the CEO, Director or Trustee easier and better – tangibly so.

This is where consumer style business technologies that truly exploit the iOS, Android and Windows 8 thinking are transformative. Business applications need to recognise the new way of thinking and working on mobile and tablets. They must understand and incorporate the improvements in information flow and the accessibility of those information flows to deliver those essential improvements in speed and usability that are critical in today’s time constrained environment.

These applications also need to recognise that individuals have a clear preference – those that use iOS do not easily migrate to an Android or Windows 8 device, or vice versa. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies – and cross platform applications - are therefore an essential component of any business application deployment strategy. Of course, this is even more so for boards, many of whom will be non-executive directors and clearly not part of any corporate IT deployment. But this model also applies to individuals at every level of the business – trying to push an ‘Apple trained’ brain to adopt a Windows 8 application could also result in frustration and a lack of engagement.

Corporate Risk

Of course, many business software developers argue that there is simply too much of a trade-off between business functionality and consumer style usability. But is this really true? Right now the constraint is primarily one of attitude – until business software developers recognise that it is as important to focus on the user experience as it is to focus on the features and functionality the problem will remain.

It is not easy. Addressing complex areas such as risk management, for example, continues to throw up challenges. While risk management systems are incredibly sophisticated to help those who manage risk as part of their job do so optimally, for the board members ultimately responsible for mitigating risk, the information is difficult to present in a way that supports strategic and effective decision making.

The problem is that most boards receive an Excel spreadsheet of typically out of date risk events with, by default, limited detail. Deep risk data is processed again and again in an attempt to make it ‘board friendly’, but the result is that individuals cannot possibly understand the true risk picture at any time and have no access to the real depth of information required to support effective, collaborative decision making.

As a result, decisions tend to be made based on preconceptions of risk rather than actual risk facts. Indeed, will board members continue to plough through an Excel spreadsheet or printed report when they are becoming used to highly intuitive collaborative tools to support every other aspect of decision making? Without a way to quickly and intuitively understand incidents and response, or gain access to the informed stance of key individuals within the business, board members have no choice but to fall back on preconceived ideas of business risk.

How much more effective would it be to enable the board to use an interactive user interface that offers real time access to highly digestible risk information? With the ability to drill down to gain insight into each incident and the action taken, board members can collaborate and discuss actual risk and make timely, informed decisions.

Ultimately the way risk is handled is down to human decisions - the better informed the board members, the better the decision making process. With interactive risk information accessible at any time via such a user interface, the board can be responding to risk events that happened just minutes before – creating a far more effective risk mitigation model than one based on pre-processed reports of risk events that occurred weeks, even months before.

Question of Time

There is a big question facing both application developers and IT procurers: just how long will employees of any generation continue to accept and endure the tedium of traditional technologies that require long training sessions and repeated access to a help desk? This is not just about the next generation due into the workforce, it applies to any individual who has asked why it takes less time to research and book a round-the-world trip than to make a stationery requisition at work. Society’s expectation of technology has fundamentally changed – there is less and less tolerance for software that is not incredibly easy to use.

But, critically, recent innovations have actually changed the way people think about and interact with technology – our brains have been trained to operate in new, more efficient ways. So where does that leave the business applications that fail to adapt?

Every day brings a change and an innovation that removes one of the limits or constraints and enables business software developers to step closer to that highly sophisticated and intuitive user experience irrespective of complexity. The challenge is not technology but culture and attitude.

From experience-led technology development to user-driven technology procurement, an extraordinary change is in progress and is fast eradicating technology resistance, improving efficiency and, critically, delivering measuring economic benefit across every generation.

Alister Esam, CEO, BoardPacks

Image source: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens

Alister Esam
Alister Esam, CEO, eShare - established in 2004, eShare's online board portal BoardPacks is used by hundreds of organisations over the world to improve corporate governance and make meetings smarter.