Design, GUIs and Lance Armstrong

I rode the 1st stage of the Tour de France from London to Canterbury last weekend, with about 4500 other folks. 200kms, relatively (but cumulatively 1800 v.m) flat. I was vaguely unhappy with my time, but that was because I’ve not really trained consistently this year.   It did take longer to drive back than it did to ride it, but that is London traffic rather than my speediness.

My friend Mark, on the other hand put in a few miles  consistently, everyday; and did far better than he (and I) expected to. To succeed in any endurance sport, you need to adjust your life to include regular training. A  little, often is a whole lot better than a big burst every now and again. (unless you are Jeff Jonas)

What does this have to do with software?

Quite a bit, if only metaphorically.

Building great looking and user centric enterprise applications can’t really be done in bursts. If every few years you sit up and say whoops the GUI looks dated lets fix it, you are doomed to play catch up.

This is similar to going out and buying a new wheelset, frame or seat, it will make you feel better and improve things slightly, but in six months’ time you will open the cycling magazine and see something lighter, cooler and more expensive. Then on the road some guy on a 15 year old bike will drop you anyway. (Trust me I know)

There are no short cuts to success in endurance sport. It takes a long term commitment. Start slow and build up. Once you have a strong base, you identify your weaknesses and work on them. Once you know your body, analyse and listen to it . From that you can apply periodisation and tune the diet. With the right approach you are able to persuade your body to innovate itself, to adapt, to continuously improve. And then you can invest in the equipment to give you the edge.

So, for enterprise applications, focus on the design. Work regularly with the users, not in a vague way, but as part of a detailed plan.  Make the user part of your life. From a base of good design, you will be able to leverage whatever new technology and techniques come along. You will be able to assess them from a position of strength, and pick the ones that work best for the job at hand, not because it is the latest fashion.

In cycling, if you have a strong base, you are in a better position to experiment and innovate, be it with equipment, diet or technique.

A concrete example of this would be to compare Lance Armstrong and Jan Ulrich. Ulrich was probably genetically stronger than Armstrong. But Ulrich partied through the winter, and then had to go on a panic caloric deficit plan just before the tour. Armstrong, on the other stayed in shape all year, and could spend the time before the tour fine tuning his technique, mental preparation and specific, stage level preparation. (more here)

In his own words,

I won using hard work, single minded devotion to a goal, dedication, exhaustive preparation and training, physiological and mental advantages, pain and suffering, innovative technology, teamwork and sacrifices that came with a price in my professional and personal life…

If a software company has a strong design led focus, it will be building applications that users want. From this position of strength it will quickly be able to assess, exploit and even invent new techniques of user interaction, in other words, innovate.  If not, it will be jumping from fad to fad.  Blown off the back of the peleton.


We can all learn a lot from Lance Armstrong.



The cardboard spaceship returns…on ERP and Social Media

The cardboard spaceship has been lurking in a galaxy far far away. It is good to see him back blogging with renewed vim and vigour.

This is a must read post.

So, to be more concrete, we have to understand in what way the ERP and the social networks differ, and for me it is really very simple…..

Welcome back to the conversation, Hamish.

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I dislike the term business user..

Last week I had the pleasure to participate in a brainstorming session on Netweaver UI futures. I can’t blog the details here, but I’d urge the internal SAP folks to check out the Wiki in this area, lots of cool stuff cooking.  A highlight for me was hearing how design led thinking is gradually but deeply permeating SAP. Listening to developers talk about their experiences at customer sites where they really dug deep into user personas, roles, hats and so on was exactly what I was hoping to hear. I’m convinced that deep, open and direct dialogue between developers and the people using the software is absolutely vital. (eek cluetrain alert)

The purpose of this post though isn’t to talk about design, but about terminology.

Having worked with payroll and compliance related software for the past decade or more, I understand how hard it is to build and maintain enterprise applications. I have written a lot here about the difference between enterprise applications and consumer applications. I’ve been critical of those who label enterprise software overly complex without understanding what the software actually does. I’ve also been critical of using the enterprise label as an excuse for forcing unnecessary complexity on the people that use the software.

I dislike, no actually, I hate the term business user.

Why talk about the business user?

1. It surely irks folks working in the public sector. They are not businesses.

2. I don’t like the implication that business users are somehow different to “other” users, and that people become suddenly different when dealing with the “serious business stuff” Do I change personality when I log on to a “business suite”?


(from wikipedia)


I’m the same person



and here. In a business suit talking about business suites.(Sartorial commentary welcome)


Of course, other than that my “consumer” persona would like to spend more on high end bicycle components than my “enterprise” persona (and spouse) would allow….

If as a consumer I’m able to log onto eBay and find the said expensive component, buy it easily and get it delivered with a minimum of fuss, then why would I not expect the same simplicity in the office? Just because I’m in the office doesn’t mean that I now should have to tolerate unnecessary complexity. 

Labelling things enterprise, business or even professional enables a defence of complexity that shouldn’t be tolerated without a challenge.

People log on to consumer tools because they want to, but often they log on to enterprise applications because they have to. I don’t think this should be an excuse to expose them to any more complexity than absolutely necessary. How products are named impacts this perception. Why would anyone want to click onto something called workspace?  This is a Business Application. It does serious stuff. You need to pay attention. Sit up straight. Behave.

I’m not sure that this division can be relied on for ever, either. People are using more and more “consumer” applications in their daily work. The nature of work is changing, just look at  “bursty v Busyness”  The palette of tools to support burstiness is growing ever richer, and I believe there is tremendous value in bringing these concepts into the heart of enterprise applications.

I blogged the other day about fun being a user requirement, and I’m convinced we need a whole lot more of it in enterprise application thinking. Consumer applications are raising the simplicity and fun bar very rapidly, and we enterprisey types had better get used to it. Design business applications with the assumption that the people using the application have a choice about which application to use, and that the screens and processes that you design directly impact their job satisfaction.  

Hugh of Gapingvoid gives us something to ponder on.

I firmly believe that the line that separates social media and ERP is going to start getting VERY blurry, and really soon. I can see a not-to-distant future where even the larger ERP solutions are built around social software, not the other way around. And I can see that day arriving in under five years. We live in interesting times.

James Governor made a similar point a few weeks ago, when discussing IBM  “industrial strength” and on the

false distinction between consumer and enterprise.

RedMonk has long called for IBM to abandon the somewhat false distinction between “consumer” and “enterprise”. What’s the main difference? Who pays the bill at the end of the month.

Every day I meet people at SAP that think complexity sucks. I also meet people who wear it on their chests like a medal. 

Creating barriers to entry through complexity is not a viable strategy. Creating competitive advantage through simplicity and fun is. Widgets, mashups, tagging, community and so on are not just cute. They are fundamental to the future of enterprise applications. It isn’t just the technology, it is the mindset. 


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