The following is a guest post by David Gleason, Silicon Valley veteran and storyteller extraordinaire.
After 30 years in the high-tech industry, I’ve come to believe that one of the great disruptions has been the transformation of the computer user, from someone who needed assistance, to the one who is calling the shots. No longer the passenger, the user is now in the driver’s seat and is setting the course. Successful entrepreneurs are those who, like the old joke about leadership, see a parade and run to the front of it, yelling, “follow me!”
In today’s enterprise, the user has evolved from being the source of input to the recipient of any desired output, anywhere, anytime without “directions.” This is part of what makes enterprise software so sexy at this stage – you can do almost anything with it, and you don’t need hand holding to get your work done.
When I entered this world as a technical writer in the 1980s, a knowledgeable friend, Rich Miller, told me: “The best way to create software is to start with the user manual — write what the program is supposed to do first, and then make the software conform to that.” He emphasized that this almost never happens, but it should — and the result would be a wonderfully easy-to-use product.
Today, the manuals are mostly gone, and in their place we are seeing an incredible explosion of user-centered design in areas that have long been hostile to the non-technical user. Giants like IBM, Oracle and SAP are improving the user experience on their systems, hosting content and forums on their websites, and releasing smart phone apps that are snappy and cool and easy to use.
Small companies are carving successful businesses out of niche markets that once were the hidden domain of IT departments, like the help desk (Zendesk), travel and expenses (Concur), file sharing (Box), social collaboration (Jive) and many others.
Three decades ago, the question an entrepreneur was likely to ask was: Which markets or functions are most underserved by enterprise software?
Today those wishing to disrupt the enterprise software world are asking: which users are underserved by this same software, by the user experience, in fact, by the overall methodology used by the big enterprise software providers?
My personal experience tells me that the user has been put in control with the rise of the Internet, the browser and most recently, the smartphone with its apps, ecosystem, and “always on and at hand” availability.
Making Sense of Command-line Applications
My first job in the early 1980s was as a technical writer at ASK Computer Systems, a disruptive company in Silicon Valley that provided software for manufacturers to track costs, parts and projections. Customers included startups Compac, Sun Microsystems and Kurzweil. The product, called ManMan (for manufacturing management), ran on HP 3000 and VAX 750 mini-computers which you accessed through terminals. Mini-computers were the disruptive hardware of their day, requiring far less expense than mainframes.
Using the ManMan system involved command-line data entry and multiple choice options, and the documentation was critical to understanding the product, how to use it and also how to track the constant software upgrades. Our pubs group cranked out thick binders of documentation, and we shipped updates to customers with individual pages containing edits that could be inserted into the binders.
In those days, the IBM PC was still a very new thing, underpowered and also command-line based. There were very few apps – unless you wrote them yourself. A big part of the tech writer’s job was to understand the user as someone who was mystified by technology. This meant explaining things in clear and simple language that most anyone could understand. Good documentation and training courses were essential to making enterprise software work.
The Rise of the GUI
The next disruption came with the rise of the graphical user interface (GUI) as a new and exciting approach to making computers both more visually rich and much easier to use. The operative word became “intuitive,” meaning you didn’t need to read the manual … at least in theory.In fact, Apple’s first Macintosh User Guide actually showed the reader how to “click and drag” with red arrows and detailed written instructions, since most users had no idea what it meant.
Microsoft was converting command-line DOS to visually richer Windows as the computing choice for millions of enterprise workers, growing its developer platform and providing programming tools that encouraged software engineers to create thousands of powerful and useful apps that were easier to use, better at displaying information, and more timely than anything that ran on mainframes or mini-computers and required dumb terminals for display.
In 1992 — 3 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall — I attended Esther Dyson’s East-West High Tech Forum in Prague, along with hundreds of excited young entrepreneurs and engineers turned business people from Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary. Their world had been disrupted, state enterprises were being privatized and markets were being created in front of our eyes.
At a lunchtime presentation, Bob Epstein, VP of Sybase, showed the audience a database screen full of numbers, then converted it to a map of an oil pipeline where he clicked on a location and pulled up the information on flow and volume. He said, “we have to stop making the work look like the data, and make the data look like the work.” Now this was revolutionary! And very disruptive — you could actually make data look like something in real life.
Soon, all the big database companies including Oracle, Sybase, IBM and others, were moving to a rich GUI for easier use but also to be able to display more data.
The World-Wide Web
By 1995, we had shed the terminals, command lines and binders. It was all about the PC, shrink-wrapped applications and paperback books as Windows 95 took center-stage. Tim Berners-Lee had created the HTTP protocol and the World Wide Web; the Internet is poised to become the next engine of disruption.
What I find most interesting is the way so many pieces came together and coincided with key turning points in hardware, software, business and even the fall of empires and the rise of new nations and markets. A new generation of users was accustomed to computing technology from their earliest years, so software developers could keep adding features and functionality. As the Web expanded, the skills learned on the PC were transferred to the browser and the desktop computer was the single device for most users most of the time.
Everything at Your Fingertips
Today, the shrink-wrapped boxes of application software are largely a thing of the past. PC sales are flat and smart phones and tablets are growing at many multiples faster rate. Users are demanding much more than easy-to-use apps; they want massive amounts of dynamic, meaningful data at their fingertips — data that is relevant to whatever they are doing, and where ever they are, right now.
The enterprise services that power these apps have become quite amazing in their scope and power, but once again, we are seeing the best and most successful services are those that provide the easiest, most intuitive experience to users. A great new service like Box.com is much more than file sharing — it’s an easy-to-learn experience because it builds on what most users already understand — the Web model of file access integrated with Tasks, Message, Chat and Group Collaboration — and lets you do things that you otherwise couldn’t do, and you can do them on any device or platform.
This time around the focus isn’t so much on teaching the user, but more on catching up with what the user has been wanting now for a while. So while the User Experience is still central, it’s a much more experienced, mature and sophisticated user that is demanding these new accommodations.
What does the future hold?
Twenty five years ago, Apple created a model of what the user experience could be like when data was abundant and accessible. It was called the Knowledge Navigator and the user simply told the computer what he wanted, and the system figured out where to find what was needed.
If you look at the trajectory of the past 3 decades, it’s hard not to conclude that the power of the user will grow, perhaps exponentially. I can see a future where the user no longer has to navigate applications or websites. Rather, we could be entering an age where the user simply tells a system or network of systems what she wants to do and the smart system finds the right tool for the job. It’s the realization of the Knowledge Navigator vision, an extension of making the data look like the work – and in an age of rich, dynamic, smart data, what could be more logical and useful than a system that can take your command and execute your wishes?
What are your thoughts on where the user experience is going?
David is a writer and senior content manager specializing in developer marketing and technical content creation for platforms, APIs and mobile. He has a life-long interest in the dynamics of change. His greatest thrill was meeting Russian physicist Andrei Sakharov in Moscow in 1988 with Apple executives on the 20th anniversary of the publication of Sakharov’s unauthorized book, Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom. Sakharov’s book was a starting point for the social, political and economic upheaval that led to the fall of the Soviet Union, certainly a major disruption in world history.