• United States



by Erik Keller

Functionality Is Dead

Nov 17, 20046 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

The Issue: The name of the game in the 1990s was functionality and technology. The new game is ease of use and accessibility.

A client recently asked me to survey its customer base about what these customers consider of most value. We assumed that it would be some combination of functional and technological superiority. We couldnt have been more wrong:

  • “Ease of use, ease of use, ease of use,” said one interviewee.
  • “Simple to use and low cost of implementation,” said another.
  • “No training and the package is very accessible,” said a third.

Ease of use makes up for a lot of shortcomings

This wasnt the first time I was wrong about the relative importance of functionality. I made such a mistake in the late 1980s when I believed that software startups Wonderware (shop-floor interface) and Parametric Technology (computer-aided design) would crash and burn because they did not have the requisite functionality needed to do all the jobs their marketing brochures claimed. And while I was correct about their lack of functionality, I was wrong about how an intuitive and almost fun user experience can make up for a lot of functional and technological shortcomings. (Obviously, they didnt crash and burn.)

But rather than be a sporadic phenomenon, ease of use and accessibility are about to enter a time in which they will become a selection metric on par with technology and functionality. AMR Research has been spotting this trend for the last year or so.

Bruce Richardson, through his yearly million-mile journeys, has written a few times on this premise: Why cant business applications look a lot more like the desktop applications that get used by business professionals every day? Its a good premise, and one that has been taken to heart by Microsoft in its latest Salesforce Automation (SFA) product.

AMR Researchs Laura Preslan discussed at the AMR Research Strategy 21 conference how Microsofts 2.0 SFA package has more than 1,000 users, some of which have accepted and embraced the product exactly for the reason that Bruce has stated: Its a no-brainer application that will help the company close deals. While it may not have all the functionality or technical robustness of a Siebel or PeopleSoft product, customers are rapidly picking it up.

This accessibility is a key strategy for across the board. It has simple pricing ($65 a month and up), a simple-to-use interface, and a simple-to-manage application (hosted). With more than 130,000 users since starting business in 1999, there is little wonder that it had a successful Initial Public Offering (IPO).

If no one uses it, it doesnt matter

These examples and others serve as a reminder to IT and business managers that while technological and functional requirements are important, so too are applications that will be embraced by real people. One of the largest problems that enterprise applications have is that they are too hard to use. For such applications, if users can avoid them to get their job done, history has shown that they will. This truth has manifested itself in countless enterprise applications being used the bare minimum, which has made it harder for IT organizations to show a positive return on their investment.

To change this, companies should add the following considerations to their application evaluation process:

  • Be accessible to a wide variety of employees, suppliers, and customers.
  • Be simple and inexpensive to upgrade and maintain.
  • Require little training for diverse sets of users.
  • Coexist with complementary and competitive solutions.

How many of your enterprise applications meet these needs? How many do you wish met these needs? Part of this change is the expanding nature of enterprise applications, especially with the desire to reach outside departments and companies. As seen in Figure 1, traditional enterprise applications have had minimal accessibility to broad user bases because of their complex functional focus and difficult-to-use user interface. The Web has done little to make these packages more accessible to slightly trained users.

Accessibility is key

Accessible enterprise applications that appeal to a broad audience have more in common with Google and eBay than older enterprise systems. Such accessibility is critical so that a broad array of occasional users can tap into a systems capabilities.

When buyers are evaluating whether an application is accessible or not, here is a brief list of some areas to consider:

  • Users/trainingHow many users in total will be accessing the system? How will they break down between employees, suppliers, and customers? How much training will be needed to make different users effective? How long will it take for various users to become proficient in the applications use? Will the success of the application require broad use and acceptance?
  • TechnologyWhat is the current base of technology, and how does it facilitate an accessible application? How are Web services and protocols used throughout different portions of the application? How much effort/cost is required to maintain the application?
  • UpgradesWhat is the mechanism and process by which applications are upgraded? What is the impact on users for upgrades? How does the degree of integration affect the cost/difficulty of upgrading? What is the range of upgrade costs for your customer base? References?
  • CustomizationHow can the overall system be customized to meet corporate customization needs? How can individual user instances be customized to meet user customization needs? What is the cost, time, and training required to make such customizations? How does the degree of customization affect upgrade cost or time to implement?
  • CostWhat is the cost of the system per user, corporate entity, and so on? How will that change over time?

What is the total cost of ownership for the system over time as a function of customization, number of users, and so on?

If you overlay this list onto the traditional list of functionality, technology, and the like, you might find something unique and good for your corporation: an enterprise application that someone will actually use.

Advice for buyers:

  • Significantly increase the value of ease of use in product evaluations and specifications.
  • For internally developed projects, use benchmarks such as Google, Yahoo, Intuit, Microsoft Office, and

    other well-known interfaces as design standards.

  • Trade off functional richness against ease of use.

Advice for sellers:

  • Evaluate product offerings by ease-of-use criteria.
  • Begin to redesign packages, particularly for large buyer populations, that are not “trivial” to use.
  • Rebalance R&D budgets and staff to facilitate a better user experience with your packages.