IGNORING NEGATIVE THEMES FOUND IN INTERNAL BUSINESS SOFTWARE IS COSTING YOU TIME AND MONEY
After conducting research for internal business software projects, we’ve seen a lot of themes emerge across several verticals. Many businesses place their priorities and budgets toward consumer-facing applications, leaving the software their own employees use to languish.
How much are these inefficiencies costing your business? I’ll let you do the math.
During our research, we conduct an observation method called contextual inquiries (CIs) with many groups of users of the software. We begin with a 60- to 90-minute window of time, during which we interview and then step back to observe users doing their jobs at their places of business. We take lots of notes during the observation and can generate up to 100 data points for each 1- to 2-hour visit. These data points are then organized using a method called affinity diagramming.
Affinity diagramming is a qualitative data analysis method that organizes individual notes captured during contextual inquiry observations into a hierarchy that reveals common issues, needs, and themes related to the project. The affinity diagramming method helps practitioners see a complete picture of all issues across the studied population. By building from the bottom up and letting the data suggest the labels rather than using predefined categories, this process exposes and makes concrete common issues, distinctions, work patterns, and needs without losing individual variation.
We first organize data into similar “I Need…” groupings, which we label with a statement card that expresses a specific user need or wants. For example, “I need to be able to submit each order in less than 1 minute to keep up.” Then we and then organize those “I Need” statements into larger “We Need…” groups. For example, “We need the system to copy our work from one section to another automatically to speed up our workflow.” Next, we take common groups and identify an over-arching theme.
Below are the top 10 themes that have emerged across multiple lines of business. While some may seem cliched or no-brainers to fix, chances are they exist within your company. Hang around your employees for a few days and observe; I’ll bet you will find some of the following:
1. Lack of or limited implementation of Single Sign-on
Most people must use multiple applications to get their jobs done. Just starting their day is a time waste, because they must log in to multiple applications multiple times. Forgot to open that one other app? That’s a sign-on. Spent too much time in other apps and now you are logged out again? That’s a sign-on. You get the idea.
2. Monitor size that can’t accommodate the primary software
Most companies we visited provided adequately sized widescreen monitors; however, the software they use is not designed to be responsive. Often, users will spend an inordinate amount of time meticulously placing or stacking windows on top of each other, hiding areas of the interface they don’t need, while exposing others they need to actively monitor.
3. Using manual tools or processes to do what the software should
Even in this modern age of business, we still see people using physical or desktop calculators to sum data and then enter it into the system because the system won’t do the math. They create notes for themselves or others using a pen and paper or notepad app because there is no place in the software for them to log the information. This information isn’t standardized or categorized in any coherent manner so other users can’t easily pick up where others left off.
4. Memorization instead of system guidance
Systems often evolve over time into a Frankenstein hodgepodge of features and functions that appear completely incoherent to new users. Veteran employees will just know which steps to begin a process and where to go in the system to get the job done. Lengthy training and homemade printouts of screenshots and order of operations are created because the system does not adequately guide users through the process.
5. Obtrusive and unnecessary system errors
These entropic systems are also prone to annoying alerts and errors as quick fixes were deployed without proper QA, much less user testing. Users learn to ignore or dismiss meaningless error messages and memorize where not to click within the interface to avoid errors. Some business units have created printed glossaries that explain what error messages mean and how to avoid or recover from them.
6. Using only a small portion of the app
Often, internal software is developed for a core group and then becomes bloated as the business grows and other departments take over parts of the work. These users will repeatedly parse through multi-tiered navigation structures and sections just to get to the one area of the software they use. The system doesn’t have any sort of configuration to hide or show features, functions or sections based on the users’ jobs or processes.
7. Searching for issues instead of being notified about them
Users will often keep specific windows full of data open, watching for one small value to change. Others will create an hourly routine of visiting specific areas of the system to discern if a new problem exists, then alert their team via email to create a work order or ticket to fix it. If dashboard features do exist, they are ignored because they don’t display the right data, or their alerts are too generic and don’t allow the user to take direct action.
8. Lack of system integration creates repetitive tasks
Most users rely on three or four systems to get their jobs done. Each system often requires the same information, so users waste time copying and pasting or re-typing data from one system to another. Data becomes inconsistent due to mistyping hand-written notes. They may have to hand-type emails to customers or colleagues to alert them of an update.
9. Lack of mobile, tablet or laptop support keeps users chained to their desks
When we bring up the idea of mobile or tablet versions of the software, we are often met with laughter or confusion because they have been trained to believe all work must take place at their desk. Users arrive and leave their jobs at standard times and have no insight into the system while they are on the go or in the field. Collaboration with others requires users to transfer notes and make updates after the fact. Warehouse workers must walk back to their desks to enter data into the system instead of doing the work on-the-spot.
10. Fear of or lack of trust in the system
Managers will only allow their top employees to access some systems not because the data is sensitive, but because the system is so prone to errors or can easily destroy data with one wrong click. Users are afraid of making mistakes because the system will not detect or help them recover from errors. They will spend an inordinate amount of time double- or triple-checking their work, reviewing each screen over and over to ensure data is correct and consistent.
These are a few examples of themes we’ve seen in many businesses across industries. Employees, managers and business owners alike have accepted these as standard practices and consider them too daunting or costly to address. But if you consider the time and cost savings by fixing a few of these, your company can become far more agile and your employees will be truly effective in their positions.