Building Applications for the New Kid

March 7, 2013 Appirio

By John Gorup (@appiriojohn)

I remember being the “New Kid” in school. I was nervous and awkward, clutching my new Trapper Keeper, but excited by the opportunity and new start. I am reminded of this scene every time I help an organization architect a new IT system. Inevitably, at some point I ask myself, “Is this system being built for the ‘’New Kid’?”

The typical approach when gathering needs and requirements for a new system is to talk to the most seasoned veterans – the ones that have been working with the legacy system for years. The veterans are a great resource because they have managed to keep the ship afloat. But to really make a system into a difference-maker, you need to build it for the “New Kid.” To do this, an organization mainly needs three ingredients: simplicity, embedded learning, and the ability to listen to the “New Kid.”

Simplicity

Many times I look at a legacy system and wonder “where would I even begin?” In some ways, the complexity I see in legacy systems is a memorial to the success of the firm. As firms grow and expand, increasing complexity is inevitable. The fact that firms stay in business despite their confusing and labyrinthine IT systems is a testimony to the tenacity of their employees and attractiveness of their products. Veterans can navigate these systems simply because of time; but pity the poor “New Kid” who steps into the middle of this controlled chaos.

While increasing complexity will never go away, the new generation of technology gives us some tools to architect systems to impose simplicity.

  • Start with an investment in some serious business process analysis. Get to know how the company runs, and get business units talking to each other.
  • Experiment with user interfaces that are closer to the consumer-applications people are now used to in their everyday life.
  • Keep the fields on the page to the bare minimum, and put meaningful text in the field help text.
  • Keep security as open as possible – and question every reason given for closing the data sharing model.
  • Most importantly, set up a governance model with a mandate to impose simplicity on the system going forward with regular releases.

Embedded Learning

Many organizations still use a training plan that consists of sticking a group of “New Kids” in a conference room for a day (with bad coffee), and leaving them with a 30-page user guide. While “formal learning” has its place, systems need to be created in a way that provides constant learning in a convenient manner.

  • Set up a internal collaboration group for “New Kids,” where they are encouraged to ask questions without the fear of looking stupid.
  • Make readily available 3-5 minute “how to” videos, and keep them fresh, updated, and fun.
  • Create a place in the application dedicated to learning, and include in it FAQs, links, important documents – basically anything that can be used to increase knowledge and adoption.

Listening to the “New Kid”

Listening to a “New Kid” is not only basic hospitality, it is a strategic tool for improving your systems and processes.

  • Encourage the use of an ideation tool like Salesforce Ideas, and create a program to quickly evaluate and implement good ideas.
  • Survey your new users at regular intervals (1 month in, 3 months, 6 months, for example) with pointed questions on how they rate the system’s usability. This data should give your developers and administrators a baseline to continually improve usability.
  • If your user adoption plan includes instructor-lead training, create a mechanism to capture what parts of the system are the most confusing, and use frequently-asked questions as pointers to usability trouble spots.

Life and business are complicated. Your IT systems should not add to the complication. When users log into their system, it should feed them actionable information in an easy-to-use manner. Your applications should foster collaboration. They should be updated with releases on a regular basis, with a constant eye on simplicity. The result should be happier “New Kids” (and happier seasoned veterans), unleashing their creativity and productivity to increase your organization’s competitive advantage.

John Gorup is a solutions architect at Appirio. He has been helping organizations implement CRM, e-learning, and custom business IT solutions for more than 15 years. John has an MBA from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.

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