Ease of Use Outside the Box

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As user experience designers in an enterprise, we find ourselves knee deep in pixels. Should we use a dropdown element or a set of radio buttons? 10pt or 12pt size font? A broad-and-shallow or narrow-and-deep information architecture? While such design considerations are necessary and important, we miss huge user experience opportunities outside the webpage, outside the website, outside the browser. By tackling inter-application usability opportunities, user experience (UX) professionals can make things easier in a big way.

Ease of Use Outside the Box

Since enterprise usability issues affect the entire organization, even small gains in improved ease-of-use can reap large benefits in aggregate across the entire user base. Whereas we traditionally focus on intra-system usability, we can also advocate inter-system usability, basically greasing the skids between systems so that all systems are easier to use. We could champion the merits of large monitors, decry unrealistically complex password policies while offering password management solutions, and develop easy-to-remember URL shortcuts for all websites that our colleagues access.

Fundamentally, user experience design strives to optimize the efficiency with which users communicate with other users through a computer. Users retrieve, consume, and input information. Within a system, we design the interfaces that allow users to efficiently perform those tasks. But users access systems in context of the environment that they are in. A system’s user experience may be drastically impaired when users access a system in a suboptimal context.

Take an application with a very well-designed user experience, say Apple’s iTunes. Fire it up, search, sort, categorize, play, and buy songs with ease. Well, perhaps not so easily. What if you were running the application on a computer with a 233MHZ processor, 32Mb of RAM, 640×480 monitor, 28.8Kb modem, and one tinny speaker? What if your iTunes password had to be changed every 15 days, must be 12 characters long, and include at least one number and one non-alphanumeric character? What if simply finding the icon to launch iTunes was a chore?

You would have a drastically different (worse) overall user experience than what you’re probably used to, in spite of the application’s well-designed user experience. Software makers understand the impact that the context in which an application is served can have on the user experience that is actually experienced. Hence the ubiquitous “System Requirements” that helps to ensure that an application is being used in its prescribed context.

Clear Path to Information

A primary system task for users is retrieving information. How can we make it easier for users to get the information they need? Unfortunately, we almost always assume an intra-system perspective—one where the information that the user needs is accessible via the system and the user is already in the system. But what if we were to take a step back and look at the larger context in which the system is accessed? What we’d find are multiple usability hurdles between users and information. In fact, there are many hurdles between the users and the applications.< Let’s take a look at three key inter-system usability issues and how they can be addressed: # Viewport size – How much information can you view at a single time? # Authentication – Can you securely and easily log into your systems? # URLs – How easily can you get to your systems?

Even High Def is Low Def

Walk into any big box electronics store and you’ll see the ubiquitous wall of so-called high-def TVs. Great, stunning, crisp pictures – right? But if you were to compare the resolution of the world’s best hi-def TV to that of printed paper, the paper would easily win. The LCD technology that many hi-def TVs use is the same as that of our computer displays. We are constrained with limited information density.

Computer displays are the viewport though which the majority of communications between the user and computer occur. Because that channel is choked by relatively low resolution and small overall area, communication throughput is limited.
Alleviating this problem is easy – increase the display area. Either get a larger monitor or, better yet, get two larger monitors and use a virtual expanded desktop that spans both. Research has shown that users can complete tasks 10% – 44% quicker with larger screens and that multi-tasking was less, well, tasking.[1] With prices of large LCD monitors drastically dropping, you can have such a setup for under $500. The increased work efficiencies that you’ll gain can easily justify the relatively small upfront expense. In fact, usability guru Jakob Nielsen states, “anyone who makes at least $50,000 per year ought to have at least 1600×1200 screen resolution.”[2]

When More Secure is Less Secure

Everyone logs into applications in the workplace. Whether you’re submitting an expense report, entering worked hours, or just logging into an intranet, you have to authenticate yourself as a valid user. The integrity of authentication lies primarily with password policies that govern password complexity and required frequency of change.

A good password is one that cannot be guessed. And there within lies the problem. What is difficult to guess is most likely difficult to remember. This problem is mulitplied when you have many applications that require authentication, each with its own password policy that dictates password complexity and mandatory resetting. So while a hacker may not be able to guess your passwords, you most likely will not be able to remember them either. So what do you do? Do what everyone else does (but knows they shouldn’t) – write your passwords down on the small piece of paper in your desk drawer. Not exactly the most secure practice.

The problem here is that the security folks design their password policies in a theoretical world where they only consider computers and hackers. Make the passwords very strong. But the primary end users, the people who actually log in appropriately, are not considered. The ultimate result is systems that are less secure. People are people. Defining password policies without considering the complete human context in which they are applied results in lower security.

As usability experts we should prescribe password management utilities. Password management utilities lock all your credentials to multiple applications under one master credential. The master credential is often a master password or a fingerprint scan. Once you have authenticated yourself with the master credential, the password management utility can then submit the individual credential to the respective applications as you access them. Since you no longer have to remember each password, you can realistically use tough-to-hack passwords for each application. Because you only have to remember a single master password, you can be realistically expected to use a strong master password.

Do You Speak URL?

It’s not uncommon to have a dozen websites that you need to access in the workplace. You need to go to one website to track your work hours, another for expenses, another for benefits enrollment, and yet another to log help desk tickets. Just arriving at these websites is often a challenge in-of-itself because each has its own long, cryptic URL. This is especially the case with internally deployed applications where the URL may include the server name, port number and even URL parameters.

A URL for an internally deployed PeopleSoft application such as http://psoft-production.hostinghub.companyname.net:8080/asp/ASPPROD/?cmd=login is not uncommon. Using your browser’s “favorites/bookmark” functionality can alleviate the problem, but that still places unnecessary burden on the users to bookmark each website and organize them. Even if the websites are bookmarked well, each time the user has to access a website, he must open his bookmarks, browse, find, and click.

Fortunately, there is an easy to implement solution that addresses the problem. URL “jumpwords” are words that you can type into your browser address bar that take you directly to a website. Think AOL “keywords,” but more persistent because they are integrated directly into existing browser functionality. So rather than having to bookmark http://psoft-production.hostinghub.companyname.net:8080/asp/ASPPROD/?cmd=login to access your Peoplesoft application, you would be able to just type “peoplesoft” in the address bar and you would be taken to the application.

Catching and rerouting the user can only work within an organization’s network (this does not work across the Web in general for obvious reasons). There are two main steps to set it up. First, you must make an internal DNS entry that catches and routes all jumpwords. All jumpwords are routed to a single, simple application page that maps the jumpword to the specific full URL and then bounces the user to that URL. You’ve then literally brought your organization’s websites to employee’s finger tips.

Big Picture Ease-of-Use

Whether designing a user interface or conducting a usability test, we generally assume that the user has already accessed the system in a predefined context. Take a step back and apply ease-of-use fundamentals to the factors that lie immediately outside of individual applications. By keeping our eyes open for opportunities to improve the user experience in a larger context, we can increase the communication efficiency within organizations and use simple solutions to reduce frustration and confusion of the people using the systems.

1.”Meet the Life Hackers”:http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/16/magazine/16guru.html?ei=5090&en=c8985a80d74cefc1&ex=1287115200&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss&pagewanted=print New York Times Magazine, October 16, 2005
2. “Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox”:http://www.useit.com/alertbox/screen_resolution.html , July 31, 2006


  1. Thanks for the story, Mike. It’s amazing how often some of the simple things are made incredibly difficult. With the multitude examples of simple plugins and scripts, we can solve problems that used to take legions of IT workers to resolve. Anyone who has spent time in an enterprise knows exactly what you mean.

    For example, take this passage:

    > Using your browser’s “favorites/bookmark” functionality can alleviate the problem, but that still places unnecessary burden on the users to bookmark each website and organize them. Even if the websites are bookmarked well, each time the user has to access a website, he must open his bookmarks, browse, find, and click.

    Why not set up a special plugin or script that employees can run that creates/updates the bookmarks for them, and even creates a quick way to access them?

    In tandem with your URL keyword solution, you could cover mostly any way that the employees want to access the internal apps. That’s the key. The enterprise solutions are often “one size fits all” or whatever is simplest to implement. The multitude of slight pauses in the enterprise worker’s life dealing with internal applications affects not only their productivity, but their job satisfaction as well. If “management” doesn’t care enough to make their administrative life simple, how does that bode for their actual work?

  2. Thats a great article. I face such multitude of problems all the time in my company. I can add a couple more issues in security.
    > Every website I visit within the intranet is secured by password. It demands me to punch in my password before I proceed. But why???
    > All the doors are secured and one can enter only when they swipe in. Ok. Understood. But why would anyone want to swipe to go out. Thats ridiculous. And these are flagged. When someone tailgates(people often do so), they are stuck. I find a lot of valuable time spent just swiping, getting stuck, queueing to swipe etc.,

    I vouch – there is a lot more to ease of use outside the software itself. Thanks for the article

  3. You’ve captured the nightmare of my workday and I’m sure many others. All day long I have to be in and out of two hosted CMS’s, a CRM, a hosted project management/tracking software, two different analytics packages, several vendor “client” sites, a conversion management app, the IT dept.’s helpdesk, etc. I’ve never thought of this usability issue, just the nightmare created by technology and bureaucracies consumed with the analysis of data, which generally seems to lead to little actual strategic decision making; just a lot of head scratching about what to do with all this “good” data we’re accumulating.

    As so many of the activities within these systems have more to do with tracking, reporting and data entry than with helping me be productive or think creatively or critically, I’m often seeking easy ways to stay out of them by creating alerts and dashboards. When I’m in them, I find myself wanting to create my own tips and notes and instructions (few systems seem to accommodate this). Maybe therein lies another usability approach to resolving this problem—finding more streamlined ways to create and disseminate the customized information you want from the systems and the customized info you need when you do have to be in them.

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