Next-Gen Portals, Mobility and the Importance of the User Experience

Next-Gen Portals, Mobility and the Importance of the User Experience

Someone else might be first to market, but the company that can out-iterate the competition will ultimately win.

Most executives would agree that in the age of cloud-first, mobile-first development, organizations that are agile and innovative have the best chance of beating the competition. However, it is no longer about achieving first-mover advantage. Being first to market used to mean something, but no longer. The barriers to competitive entry have been compromised. The real advantage comes not from being first, but from being able to iterate quickly, learning from earlier versions through metrics and feedback, and using customer feedback to rapidly improve upon your service or product--and to develop a superior user experience so that customers never leave. Someone else might be first to market, but the company that can out-iterate the competition will ultimately win.

Look at the related changes happening within software development: Microsoft announces a strategic re-positioning of its internal systems and external delivery mechanisms based upon a cloud-first, mobile-first model, moving away from the multi-year release cycle. As part of this massive change, the company also dramatically improved the telemetry within its tools to better learn from customer usage patterns, as well as ramped up the feedback loops between customers and product teams to be able to better respond. The result is a company that can respond much more quickly to customer and industry movement.

Let's face it: When trying to meet (or exceed) customer expectations, it's often less about the fact that you were first to step forward (the initial design), and more about how quickly you are able to apply what you learn from that first step and iterate across steps two, three, four and beyond.

Iteration Is King

The idea of an evolving, iterative design and development strategy achieved through the use of self-organizing, cross-functional teams that take an idea from conception through delivery is nothing new. In fact, the idea of creating a minimally viable product (MVP)--piloting basic features quickly so that you can get some immediate feedback from partners and customers and then rapidly iterating that design-- has, arguably, entered into the mainstream of corporate canon. In fact, some of the roots of MVP and agile development point back to the beginning of the personal computer era.

A great example of early iterative methodology was the Joint Application Development (JAD) process. Early in my career, I was trained as a JAD facilitator. JAD was introduced back in the late 1970s as a method to accelerate the design of information technology systems and platforms by involving all key stakeholders, from end users to developers, and from customers to business decision-makers. The idea was to create an environment where small teams could discuss, design, and prototype new products and systems. With key decision-makers essentially "sequestered" in a room with a facilitator and one or two front-end developers, everyone would work together to identify a shared vision and goals, map out requirements and an initial design, and then develop a minimally viable product. The model does not work with every project or technology, but it works well when designing a new user interface (UI) or process model for more complex systems or solutions, where approvals are required from various teams and business units.

Of course, in the few years that I practiced the methodology, my experience was that the key to a successful JAD implementation was to come to an agreement on not just the UI, but also the end-to-end user experience (of which the UI might only be a small part).


Focusing on the End-to-End Experience

What is the difference between UI and user experience, or UX, you ask? At its core, it is presentation versus function. UI design is focused on the visual aspects of the site (buttons, graphic design, banners, and so forth). UX, on the other hand, is more about usability, ease-of-use of features or the logical flow of a page, and of enhancing user satisfaction. Far too many websites and software products focus on the UI (the font, the color scheme, the look and feel of buttons and navigation) without fully considering the UX (where users are coming from, how the user follows the flow of the page and the logical actions the user may take based on what they find).

If it sounds like your organization is behind the times in UX design, you're not alone. When building out an intranet on a platform like SharePoint, for example, most companies are overly reliant on the out-of-the-box UX, and don't take the time to stop and think about whether those default settings will actually make sense to their users or customers. As more and more companies begin to think about and plan for a transition away from on-premises deployments toward cloud and hybrid solutions--with a lack of parity between most on-prem and cloud features and capabilities--an understanding of the end-to-end user experience will become even more critical.

Ask yourself this question: How involved were your end users in the design and deployment of your current system?

The user experience is the key to successful collaboration, plain and simple. If your environment is too complex, or even too simple, users will go elsewhere to get their work done. If their content disappears into whereabouts unknown, if the navigation is sloppy, if search doesn't seem to work, if key business workloads are not easily found and followed, adoption of your environment will be dismal, and your efforts will be a failure. Without adoption and active participation (engagement) on your system, you will not be able to learn and iterate. Why is this critical? Because there is a direct correlation between UX and innovation.

UX Enablers

Within the collaboration space, there is a clear trend toward productivity and UX-enhancing solutions. In fact, there are a number of automated solutions that can greatly improve the rate of success of your environment. Leading UX enablers include workflow, forms and mobility solutions. There's a reason workflow is the No. 1 productivity tool within collaborative environments like SharePoint--because it enables you to duplicate the UX of key business processes, and has the ability to capture even the most complex processes. Similarly, the purpose and behavior of forms are innately understood by users: Provide your details, and submit. When working in tandem with workflow, forms can be very powerful. And, if constructed thoughtfully, they can help a user to move through very complex business activities from A through Z, ensuring the business captures all required information.

Of course, people want these workflow and form capabilities across all of their devices. But what they want is often beyond a Web page accessed via the mobile browser. What they want is a UX tailored for the device, and for the task at hand. Responsive Web design was pioneered in the mid-2000s as a way to provide optimal viewing and interaction with websites, so that as you change the orientation of your device, or resize a browser (or view a page through a smaller device), the website adapts by changing proportions and format of text images. While responsive design provides for some basic UX needs, within more collaborative environments like SharePoint users prefer a native experience--scenario-specific solutions, social in nature, built for their device.

Mobility is not only about moving to a responsive design, expecting users to access their key business activities through their mobile devices, and yet this is the approach most businesses follow--taking whatever it is that is done on the desktop and making it accessible through mobile devices. Approaching mobility from a UX perspective is about re-thinking the mobile experience from top to bottom, and developing applications, tools and content specifically for those mobile scenarios.

For example, consider an expense tracking tool. You would not expect to generate an entire expense report on your mobile form, so why would the phone app include the same options as the full desktop application? Instead, consider the activities a user might complete using their phone: taking snapshots of receipts, and submitting new line item expenses to the cloud, to be retrieved at a later date and compiled into a full expense report.

A great example of a company that is putting these ideas into practice is Colligo, a long-time SharePoint independent software vendor (ISV) that was among the first companies to develop native SharePoint solutions for iOS and Windows devices. This allows users to view, edit and sync content between their devices and the SharePoint environment, rather than go through the native browser experience of logging into SharePoint, and scrolling and searching through a UX not designed for your device. Colligo has done the hard work of thinking through the common activities of mobile SharePoint users, and has designed experiences specifically for those users. And that's the whole point of good UX design.

The Future of Collaboration

Wondering about the importance of UX design, and whether it is something you should focus time, money and resources on to get done right? Microsoft is certainly putting UX at the center of their Office 365 and SharePoint strategy in the creation of its NextGen Portals, which are end-to-end solutions built on top of SharePoint and the broader Office 365 platform. These portals are the result of customer feedback on common platform scenarios, combined with cloud-based innovation. At the Microsoft Ignite Conference in May, the product team outlined the UX-heavy focus of its NextGen Portal strategy:

  • Intelligent—delivering personalized, relevant information to users.
  • Social—integrating social interactions to fuel participation.
  • Mobile—making it easy to access and consume content from any device, anywhere.
  • Ready to go—helping end users get up and running quickly with highly functional and visually rich solutions

Of course, no solution will fill the needs of every company or user scenario--which is why organizations need to proactively discuss the user experience with their users, administrators and stakeholders on a regular basis to understand how solutions and sites are meeting the needs of the business—or, conversely, how they may be stifling productivity. As I mentioned earlier, the JAD methodology may not fit every scenario, but it is one tool that can be used to very quickly capture and prototype business requirements from a large body of users across disparate teams. Another method is to include these discussions as part of your IT or engineering change management model, providing a channel through which users can provide feedback about existing systems and tools, sharing their thoughts on what is working and what is not.

Regardless of your methodology, the user experience should be a priority as you develop and deploy your enterprise solutions. The more end users are engaged (translation: they are actually using the tools you provide), the more you will learn about how they are using the tools and where you can improve the UX. The more workloads become automated and streamlined, the more your end users will be able to accomplish in their jobs, generating more innovation, more business value and more of a competitive barrier.

Automation and the user experience should be a key focus area within your overall business strategy, using workflow and forms to streamline complex business activities. Likewise, you should approach mobility as an extension of the UX design--not relying on the default browser experiences, but working with your end users to iterate on out-of-the-box experiences and more tightly align your tools with your business processes. This will make your entire business more agile and innovative.

Christian Buckley is an Office 365 MVP, a Top 25 SharePoint Influencer (Forbes, Forrester) and an active member of the SharePoint community. He speaks and writes regularly on SharePoint and Office365 governance, administration, migration, social informatics and general best practices. Buckley will be a speaker at SharePoint Fest Seattle.

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