Friday, December 22, 2006

"Easy to use" versus Intuitive

When people first inquire about our online registration system, they ask two things: "How much does it cost?" and "Is it easy to use?" At that stage, I have to answer "such and such $$$ per registration" and "yes", because if I took the time to explain why these are the wrong questions to ask, then the prospect would think that I'm waffling. I might as well say, "I'm going to take more money from you than the IRS and in return give you something that is slightly more complicated than your Tax Return in a year when you got married, sold a house, bought another house, closed an S Corporation, and merged 3 kids into a Brady Bunch family (welcome to my tax year). But if only I had time to tell them this...

"Easy to Use" and "Flexible"

What prospects are saying is, "Is this software easy for me to use for my current job tasks, with my specific event planning experience and level of comfort with web-based software." Well, the truth is that some users are so uncomfortable with Internet applications, or even the computer in general, that they will never think an application is "easy". For these people we show what our application can do for them and their customers, and then we offer our "full service" option, where our in-house experts build the client's registration forms, web sites, and reports for them. Presto! - it's easy to use because you don't have to use it at all!

But most of our prospects want to "do it themselves", either to save money or because that is part of their job description, and, well, they like getting a paycheck every month. The challenge for a software designer (like me) is to create software that is both "easy to use" and that can actually do what you need it to. On top of that, it must meet these criteria for a wide audience of paying customers, otherwise the cost of the software would be more than most individuals or companies could bear.

It would be easy to build an application that has a step-by-step wizard that guides a person through the exact process that they follow with their events. This would be "easy to use", that is, until another person tried to use it, and then "whoa! what about discount codes for multiple attendees from the same company - how do I do that?". Then the manager needs to oversee all of her staff and allocate resources appropriately and monitor budgets - but without getting in the way of the employees doing the work. Next the executives take the business in a new direction or merge with another company, and suddenly the processes that have worked for six years need to be changed to meet this new reality.

Okay, so what the prospect really wants is "easy to use" and "flexible". So we design a wizard that asks questions about what you need for this event - Fees or Free? Breakout Sessions? CEUs? Guests? Hotel Rooms? Air Travel? - but this can go on and on until the user becomes annoyed having to constantly tell the system what they do and don't do with each event. So we give you templates, so you don't have to answer these questions with each repeat event; you only answer them with the new events. This struggle between easy and flexible goes on and on, and is in the forefront of our software design.

"Easy to Use" and "Intuitive"

"Intuitive" is a better goal to keep in mind when designing software. Can the user approach the application (without training or assumption of skill levels) and intuitively know how to approach the application, and where to start in order to get their immediate task accomplished? People don't actually expect software to do their job for them, they just want it to help them do their job that much faster. Don't make me answer questions about what I want to do - I know what I want to do, just help me do it.

Concepts in Practice

The concept of "Intuitive" has been in the front of my mind lately because we are currently re-designing the Register123 user interface. We are working with Bruce Browne, a software design expert who previously worked with Apple and Intuit on the Quicken application.

First, I have a week off to spend the Holidays with my family in the Colorado snow, but starting next year I'm going to discuss the design process that we've used in order to improve our software, and hopefully achieve the elusive goal of "easy to use".

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family.

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