April 8, 2006

UI musings

In the past, I wrote vigorously and often about UI. I knocked heads long ago about the superiority of GUIs to character-based interfaces, and even long before that about the advantages of OLTP (which we called “real-time” then) over batch processing. In the latter 1990s, I put a lot of time and effort into search, better alerts-management, and context-sensitivity in general. And recently I’ve focused a lot of my research on analytics, often with a theme of “Yeah, yeah, the server-side stuff is cool — but let’s talk about how people actually interact with this stuff.”

Still, I feel something has been lacking, probably because there just are so many different UI subjects to talk about. So here are some quick-hit thoughts on UIs. The first ones are from my Computerworld column running next Monday, which is called (with apologies to Sports Illustrated columnist Peter King), Six Things I Think I Think About UIs.

1. “A good GUI interface” is the most important feature a product can have. In many cases, the GUI is the feature set, whether we’re talking about operational apps, BI, or IT administration tools. For example, when I looked into the security market a few years ago, it turned out that Checkpoint’s rise to dominate the firewall market in the late 1990s came about because it had a good GUI rules-administration interface, while otherwise equal or superior competitors didn’t.

2. Web UIs are now, finally, much superior to the client/server systems they replaced. That wasn’t true until recently. But now they’ve leapfrogged client/server a little bit in pure GUI functionality. (I somehow like this article on the technology, even though I’m not sure what I learned from it.) And they’re always been way ahead in application navigability.

3. BI look-and-feel is on the upswing. Business Objects is a good example of this. They brought their thin client products up to client/server GUI standards. They fiddled around in usability labs with screen real estate and so on to polish the dashboard UIs further. And then they went out and bought what is now Crystal Excelsius.

4. Portal technology is headed for a boom. I have a whole whitepaper in the works on that one.

5. Natural-language interfaces are advancing too slowly. Unfortunately, big vendors remain clueless about language-based UIs. Enterprise search is a fiasco. Most single-site web search is even worse; in almost every case, it’s inferior to just googling on search string + site name. As for natural language/voice command/control and navigation – we’re nowhere, Inquira and Sybase AnswersAnywhere notwithstanding. (I bet you can’t name a single user of either product off the top of your head. To tell the truth, I can’t either, except that I’m pretty sure Inquira powers the websites of a couple big-name cellular providers.)

6. Microsoft Office is a huge question mark. Office is facing a huge, if slow-moving, threat from open source. And the product has basically been stagnant for years, in that few users have cared much about any of the newer features.

Microsoft’s stated and obviously sincere strategy is to make Office an important window in the world of database applications. The Proclarity acquisition this week is surely part of that. So are the moves to make XML important in live documents, which dovetail nicely with the XML file formats of Office 2007.

EDIT: See also: You can start to imagine a world of Office as a business application platform,” Witts said.

7. In particular, Excel is a huge question mark. On the one hand, the BI industry is doing ever more to make Excel into a viable BI client. On the other hand, they’re trying to replace Excel as the data storage engine of choice — and in some cases even as the client — for budgeting/planning/etc. It does seem to me as if server-based planning is sweeping the enterprise world. So where does that leave Excel? Will it ultimately be anything more than a glorified calculator?

8. Home UIs are challenging work ones. Back when I consulted a lot to AOL in the late 1990s, I (correctly, it turns out) warned them that their client’s lack of functionality in areas such as email and browsing would get them into big trouble, because users’ expectations were being set higher at work. Now the reverse is at times true. Home bandwidth has caught up with work bandwidth, and webmail is in some ways better than Outlook. Meanwhile, a few websites out there are actually pretty usable, annoying clutter notwithstanding — and most of them are focused on consumer shopping, e.g. Amazon, Land’s End, et al.

9. Usability labs are crucial. Back in the 1990s, usability labs were new. Microsoft and Lotus and Borland had good ones, and Oracle hired Dan Rosenberg away from Borland to set up theirs. Other than that, there mainly were third-party consulting firms, or very primitive inhouse operations.

Well, I’m still not convinced that very many inhouse usability labs accomplish much. But I do know that whether it’s inhouse or third-party, you must use a lab if you’re serious about offering a competitive product.

10. Rules-based interfaces are too primitive. This isn’t really an interface issue so much as a functionality one — but as noted above, the two are inseparable. True declarative rules interfaces, which function with the same flexibility as 1980s-era expert system shells, are way too rare. Executing a set of rules in a set linear order is not the same thing at all.


2 Responses to “UI musings”

  1. Tim Shetler on April 11th, 2006 2:52 pm

    I would very much agree with the sentiment that user experience is too often
    overlooked or downplayed, and yet when done right, can create a big advantage.
    User interface, content, and performance all play a major role in the experience.
    At InQuira, we think that helping our clients optimize their customers’ experience
    is the main goal, using a combination of our intelligent search and knowledge
    management products, and extensions of both designed to promote a positive user

    InQuira’s customer list includes automotive manufacturers BMW, Honda, Mazda, Jeep, Dodge, and Chrysler; telco service providers T-Mobile, AT&T, BellSouth, Verizon, and Bell Canada; and financial institutions Bank of America, Fidelity, E-Trade, and PayPal. These companies and others use InQuira in their contact centers and websites to enable faster, higher quality information access.

  2. DBMS2 — DataBase Management System Services»Blog Archive » Oracle/Google/Apple merger – wow! Just — wow. on April 1st, 2007 7:02 am

    […] The Macintosh could become a serious Windows competitor. The Mac is quietly making an enterprise comeback anyway. Business intelligence, dashboards, and the like are constantly in the throes of UI re-invention. (I have some articles I the works about why the industry never seem to get them right, but in the mean time here is my UI overview article from last year.) […]

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