I really believe that one of the most important and exciting areas of innovation is to rethink IT applications around the humans that use them not the computers that run them. In fact, I feel that we do not have a choice -- if we want to stay one step ahead of the growing complexity of the IT systems around us.
When one examines the characteristics of successful IT applications – those that appeal to large numbers of people -- it is clear that they appeal to us because they are intuitive and thus easy to learn and use. What makes applications intuitive is the fact that they are designed around objects from the real world that people are generally familiar with, and thus we can bring our real world knowledge and intuition to bear on the applications - they have a point of connection, as it were.
The applications are then developed for the virtual world of computers, including the realistic simulations of the physical world objects on which they are based, along with added features which good designers will also make as intuitive as possible. Since our interactions with the physical world are so visual in nature, it is not surprising that the more visual an application, the more intuitive it is likely to feel.
Let me give a few examples. Word processing applications have been designed around people's familiarity with typewriters and documents. They typically include features like ease of modification, instantaneous correction of mistakes, a variety of fonts, colors and formats, and so on. Word processing applications are WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You get) in nature, namely, the object the users interact with in the computer looks as close as possible to the document they are working with, so they can truly visualize what it is they are doing.
It is not surprising that the World Wide Web took off once the web browser made its appearance in the early to mid '90s. The browser organized all the text, images and other information available in the Web into something that looked like a page, from say a newspaper, a magazine or a book, albeit a significantly enriched page with all kinds of added features like hyperlinks. The highly visual and realistic presentation of content in browsers has played a key role in their universal appeal.
In engineering applications, the intuitive connection is made around the object being designed, be it a car, airplane, building, bridge, perfume bottle, or article of clothing. Computer-Aided Design (CAD) applications build on the notion of the drafting tables used by engineers, architects and designers of all sorts to sketch out their designs in increasing levels of detail. Good CAD applications are intrinsically visual, focusing on the look, properties, style and performance of the object being designed. Over time, very sophisticated capabilities have been added so the designs can be analyzed and simulated in many dimensions, from the aerodynamics of an airplane to the crash-worthiness of a car to the behavior of a building when subjected to the forces of earthquakes or hurricanes.
Scientific applications generally present the vast amounts of information produced in supercomputing simulations as highly realistic visualizations, such as the path of a storm in weather prediction, the changes undergone by molecules during a chemical reaction, or the detailed structure of the brain in medical imaging. Such visualizations are necessary so that the scientists can absorb all the information being presented to them and get the proper insights that lead to scientific discovery.
The leading edge of intuitive application design is now taking place in the world of video games. The whole object of these highly interactive games, whether developed for single game players or for online massively multiplayer platforms, is to enable the players to make decisions very quickly. Thus, their interfaces have to be truly intuitive. Video and online games are the ultimate WYSIWYG applications.
In reality, only a relatively small number of IT applications can be said to be intuitive in nature. Many, perhaps most, applications have been developed around the computer and its features and concepts and not around the humans using the applications. User interfaces are typically just a thin veneer layered over the application. The computer-centric nature of such applications is evident in a variety of aspects: the application does not feel natural or intuitive in any sense of the word and archaic computer terms and features often show through to the users, who usually cannot make sense of them.
This is particularly true of legacy business applications, which were developed quite a number of years ago at a time when computers were much less powerful and much more expensive, and the software tools were more primitive. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications (e.g., financials, HR, supply chain management, customer relationships, etc.), as one example of many, are notoriously complicated to deploy and use. Many factors account for their complexity, including the intrinsic complexity of the enterprise functions the applications manage. But a large part of their complexity results from the gap between the way people generally think about the functions of the business and the way these applications represent those functions.
The change to people-centric from machine-centric applications becomes possible usually when the underlying technologies get inexpensive enough to make the human-oriented user interfaces affordable. The market success of word processing applications in the ‘80s and web browsers in the ‘90s coincided with the advent of increasingly powerful and affordable personal computers. The sophisticated visualization of engineering and scientific applications has been made possible by the huge advances and declining costs of supercomputers in the last decade. The highly visual and interactive capabilities of the new generation of game players have been made possible by a new generation of very powerful microprocessors with advanced graphics features.
But the technology advances, while absolutely necessary, are far from sufficient. The hardest challenge of all, but also the most promising opportunity for breakthrough innovation, is to understand how people best perceive and interact with applications – e.g., what makes an application feel intuitive, industry by industry and process by process. How can we design hospital management systems, supply chains for retail stores or HR applications for a bank that are truly human-friendly to all the various people who use them?
This work will require a lot of talent and a variety of skills. It is truly one of the areas in the IT industry most in need of innovation, but also one full of opportunities for those who take it on.