At some point during our careers, most of us have had experiences working with both good and bad software systems. While it’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly what determines your satisfaction level with a system, one thing is certain: You know a good one when you use it. But what is it that separates great design from poor design? When designing software for your organization, or evaluating the purchase of a third-party system, what are the key factors to consider? In all systems, no matter what industry they are meant to serve, there are five key steps to consider during the design phase of the project.
- Identify all users. This is certainly true in the world of financial software. Often the systems are multi-purpose. They are being used by both clients and employees. In the case of third-party finance systems, they may also be used by auditors and vendors when acting in a support role. In this arena, design is important, but workflow is even more critical. In these multi-use scenarios, your design needs to incorporate different experiences depending on who is using the system. Support users will need one interface experience while clients may need another – since their workflows are different. Before you can write the first line of code, you need to fully understand who is using the system, how they are using it, and what information they need to gain from it.
Along these same lines, it is also important to understand how the users are consuming the software. Do they need access through mobile devices such as cells or tablets? Is a browser-based solution the right choice, or are they expecting an installed app on their desktop? All of these are considerations that directly impact user experience.
One final point to consider regarding users is information security. Likely, you will need to incorporate varying levels of access into your design. For example, for some users you may need to mask private information such as social security numbers. Some users may need full administrative access while others just need “read-only” access to do their jobs.
- Understand user preferences. Don’t operate on assumptions or stereotypes. This is why the role of the business analyst is so critical. They are the liaisons between the developers and the business users. Taking the time to understand what the system needs to accomplish for each user is key. Most importantly, this is a two-way street. System users have just as much responsibility as the system developers to ensure a quality product. They are the ones who know what they should need, what information is critical and what workflows are the most efficient. Furthermore, communication between the users and developers does not end once the system is built. Continued feedback is critical to keeping it fresh and relevant for the business. Users’ groups and other methods are valuable means to identifying where the system needs to evolve. There is no system in place that can afford to remain static. It will always be changing, since the industry it supports is always changing.
Just as when you are building PowerPoint presentations, simplifying your content is key. Visually, are the screens easy to navigate? Rather than having too much information on one page, incorporate hover features and drill down options. This keeps the page visually uncluttered while still maximizing the user’s access to information. By designing systems with this depth, the developer can guide the user through the workflow experience. Even the most robust systems with mountains of available data should feel this way. That is the mark of great design.
- Get into the flow. The workflow designed into a system is what really determines user experience. It is important to visualize the user’s experience with the system under all scenarios you can imagine. Also, test and confirm the user experience throughout the development process. Communication is key to making sure you do not go too far down the wrong path during development. This is especially true today where some aspects of the design are federally mandated through the ADA.
When considering workflow, you will also likely discover scenarios where other systems need to be incorporated into the design. Rarely does one system stand alone, so consider how these systems will be integrated into the overall workflow experience. This is another area where the work of the business analyst will be critical.
- Focus on learning methods. Another key measure of a great software system is how easy it is to learn. This is no mistake. It confirms that the developers took learning styles into consideration when building the system. They understood how the users would want to digest information. Some of us are visual learners while others may prefer grids and tables incorporated into the design. The best systems include options for both types of people. They incorporate visual aids such as high-level dashboard graphs that can then be drilled into to access the underlying data.