How do you create business software that CFOs really want to use?

8th September 2014

I’ve been using business software for more than 35 years but in all that time I have rarely been excited by the experience.  Yes, the software has become more functional, intuitive, graphical and intelligent but despite these advances, business applications are still too clunky and difficult to use. So how does one transform business software from a chore into an “experience” – and is there any business benefit to be gained from making software more beautiful?

 

 

 

The idea of making ‘beautiful’ business software first emerged around two years ago when I heard about a pioneering initiative by Infor to reinvent the way that software is developed by harnessing creative talent rather than traditional software engineers. Infor launched the world’s first in-house design agency, “Hook and Loop” specifically dedicated to business software design and set about re-designing its software portfolio.  The result has been spectacularly rewarding, spawning genuinely exciting software across industries and setting a new paradigm for the way that software developers solve business problems. So I was delighted when the opportunity arose to visit the ‘creatives’ behind Hook & Loop in New York last week.

First impressions are important and there is no doubt that Hook & Loop is culturally distinct. The vast open plan working areas (also used by Infor’s executive), the glass partitions, the minimalist furnishings, the cello propped up in the corner, the story boards pinned to the walls and the generously proportioned white boards tells visitors that something different is going on here.

It’s an environment that’s conducive to the creative process, encouraging the free movement of people and ideas. But collaboration is also reinforced by policy. Kellen Styler, Head of Product explains that “Sounding Board” is an initiative designed to promote virtual team working so that people get to know each other and share project experiences (formally and informally) with colleagues from different creative disciplines.  (The Hook & Loop team includes former advertising people, artists, a CGI animator from The Avengers, a comic book illustrator, and a designer from Kenneth Cole. It also includes designers with strengths in information architecture and code, as well as two developers with backgrounds in graphic design and another who started his career as a writer.)

It’s a creative melting pot in which colleagues are also encouraged “to do their own thing”, says Kellen.  “What you learn is what you bring back” and so personnel are encouraged and aided to develop their own pet projects and apps in their own time, capturing the essence of a start-up culture as well as a mature business applications vendor.

Nunzio Esposito another creative director adds, “It’s like a big mash up, there is an uncanny level of collaboration and egos are set aside”. But doesn’t a free-wheeling creative process come into conflict with technical feasibility? Ted Kusio, the technologist on the team comments, “We still have an end goal or at least metaphorically written in pencil. If it’s not possible to do it one way we will normally find another way.  It’s not often that we find ourselves in technical conflict.”

But it would be misleading to suggest that the creative process is all about a beautiful user interface. At Hook & Loop, ‘beauty’ runs more than skin deep.  The culture is very much about creating a fulfilling “User Experience” or UX as it’s called in the industry. This incorporates the best thinking around the user interface and navigation but it also looks at process flows to determine how productivity and responsiveness can be enhanced, for example, by bringing relevant information from different applications onto the same page, reducing page clicks and embedding collaborative social tools.  By improving process usability and visibility, Hook & Loop’s designers are producing more engaging applications that allow workers to be more responsive and productive, leading to better staff mobility, lower training costs and reduced headcount.

It may not grab the headlines but reinventing and transforming internal processes can yield surprisingly high returns.  It’s a view backed up by industry surveys.  For example, a McKinsey survey (“Finding your digital sweet spot”; Tunde Olanrewaju and Paul Willmott) says that the average bottom-line impact that can be realized from digital sales over the next 5 years is 20 percent whereas the bottom-line impact from cost-reductions could yield an average of 36 percent.  Beautifully crafted software could also hold the key to attracting and retaining talent, especially the so called “Millennials” entering the work force now, who expect the usability of iphones, social networking tools and apps to be reflected in business applications as well.

Hoop & Loop has grown from a handful of personnel to over 80 staff in just in just two years, validating the initial concept, raising the bar in software design and creating a clamour from customers to work on their pet projects. After almost four decades we are at last entering a new era in which business software can be deliver a fulfilling UX and save money as well.

Gary Simon BSc, FCA, FBCS, CITP 
Group Finance Director and Publisher FSN (Financial Systems News)

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