Is 2012 the Year of User Experience in ECM?


Thu 19 January 2012 By Jane Zupan

There’s no shortage of predictions for enterprise content management in 2012: ECM will move to the Cloud, mobile and tablet devices will drive product innovation, and social business solutions will increasingly be in demand. These will certainly be key trends in the ECM market this year. But what if 2012 was simply the year that saw usability take priority over technology when it comes to enterprise content management?

In the not-too-distant past, user experience (UX) was considered an annoying afterthought for enterprise application development and deployment. User adoption was often disappointing, and the disconnect between business and IT seemed like a deep chasm. In recent years, easy access to technology solutions such as Flickr, Dropbox, Google Docs, and mobile apps that require no reading of manuals or training, has changed the mindset of technology users. This exposure is increasingly setting the tone for their expectations of enterprise applications in terms of usability.



The AIIM New England group held a meeting entitled “Usability Matters! Critical Considerations for the User Experience” in November 2011. The 2 presenters at the session have different, but complementary perspectives on UX:

  • Jill Hart, owner of Brain Logic, LLC, and UX professional, helps companies design and deliver technology that is easy for customers to use.

  • Dan Antion, VP Information Services for American Nuclear Insurers, has rolled out a content management solution built on Microsoft SharePoint 2010. He offers real-world experience about the getting user feedback early in a technology project, and what happens if you fail to do so.


Intrigued by the topic, and the changes in the perception of user experience in enterprise software in recent years, I interviewed Dan and Jill post-presentation. Dan went first at the AIIM event, so I interviewed him first. This gave Jill a chance to follow up on the ideas of the IT guy.

JZ: Dan, it was your idea to have AIIM NE host a usability-themed event. You're a SharePoint project manager. What was the impetus for this focus? Why does usability matter, and why is it an important topic for an information management crowd? How have your views on user experience changed over time?

I think it's important because we have to get people to participate in ECM voluntarily. We can’t force users to do a good job with our ECM applications, for example, by assigning metadata to a document to make it easily searchable.

As an IT professional, I’ve noticed a change over time. We used to be driven by the mantra "Make it work. Make it fast. Make it pretty." Pretty was always at the bottom of the list. But now, the buzz word "consumerization" keeps cropping up, and apps have become easily available. Users don't have to accept something that's not good, or has a poor user experience. They can sign up for Box, Dropbox, or Microsoft SkyDrive, and take their content off my platform, creating problems ranging from security to traceability of content. I’m in a position now where I have to market to my users, and sell them on my solution. This is a very different situation from even the fairly recent past, when you could say, “Here’s the solution - take or leave it.”

JZ: You are the Vice President Information Services at American Nuclear Insurers, and a developer at heart. You joined AIIM when you were given a SharePoint project to manage at your company, so you could learn about ECM. Content management means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. What does it mean for you, in the context of your project? Have your views on content management, and the value of an ECM system in the enterprise, changed since you took on this challenge?

Our project started in October 2001. After 9/11, people in our company started wondering what would happen if our building was destroyed, and we lost all of our documents. Could the company continue to function?

Our immediate focus was on document management, and preserving digital copies of business critical documents. They gave me this project because I had the right resources, and it sounded technical. My first approach was to build our own system. At the time, document management software was a 6-figure investment, and we couldn't afford it.

I created a protected directory, controlled by a database. Over a period of years, we had collected most of the critical documents in the company. We got to a point where we needed more functionality, and we needed to make these documents more easily available to people. We tried to put a web front end on our system, with a query and search tool.

By 2005, the demands for the system had become too much for us, so we started looking at other options. Somebody showed us SharePoint, and we realized that was what we needed. We moved a lot of our functionality from back office to mainstream, and let employees define for themselves which documents are business critical. We extended the process into helping with the construction of documents - i.e., collaboration.

Before this, when important documents were being created - for example, the annual report - there might be 15 copies floating around by email, with naming conventions such as .final.doc, .final.final.doc, and .reallyfinal.doc. 2 months, or even 2 weeks down the road, it would be impossible to find out which version should be in production. It became obvious that the document lifecycle and versions needed to be better managed. That was the light bulb moment for us: that's ECM.

You used a term in one of your tweets about the Nuxeo content management platform that caught my attention: "content-centric applications." That struck me as being a different way of looking at the beast. We work under the assumption that structured data is the most important piece of the puzzle. We think of content as artifacts of a process, but in reality content deserves the attention that we would give to business applications.

JZ: In your presentation, you cited some examples within your project of development choices you would have made differently after getting post-deployment user feedback. If you could go back to square one with 20/20 hindsight, how would you manage this project differently?

On this project, I don't think we would have done anything differently, but our experience will affect the next project. Our people had no exposure to SharePoint or anything that had to do with content management before this. We tried to elicit where our users were having problems, and we did our best to craft a solution to address those issues. It wasn't until they saw the first cut that they started to understand what we were trying to do.

Now, we can sit down with people in other departments and demo capabilities before we design the next solution. This gives them a much broader picture and it should help them think about what they need. That would have helped us before, but we didn't have anything but IT examples in the past.

I used to think that with data processing systems, you can only imagine one level beyond where you are. For example, consider transportation between work and home. Most people think of a car, and you can imagine a better car. But you can't imagine a Star Trek transporter, because that’s too many levels ahead.

JZ: You mentioned in your presentation that using SharePoint was a big change in your organization, and the users perceived it as an additional task on an already uber busy agenda. The users didn't see the value of this tool, but clearly upper management saw the value. As project manager, you were tasked with bridging that gap. How did you convince users to use the application? What advice would you give to other ECM project managers to engage users?

Back to the whole user experience thing, in the beginning we were too narrowly focused on the end product: the Document. Our main documents are inspection reports, and we wanted to put them where they belong, and be able to search for them, which means setting the appropriate metadata. How you set metadata determines how you can search for documents. In that sense, we were adding more work for the users, because they had to assign the metadata correctly.

At some point, we started to look at the whole process involved in generating an inspection report. In fact, our users were building the report somewhere else, then emailing it from one person to the next for review. We extended SharePoint to cover the whole inspection process, instead of just being a document repository. That’s when the users began to see the value for them of using our ECM application -- when we started providing automation for the whole process, and not just document storage and search.

We ended up brokering a deal with the users. If they agreed to take the time to give us additional information about their work processes, we'd help make the process easier somewhere else. You still have to create the inspection report, but you don't have to email it. You don't have to know if the person who in responsible for formatting the inspection report is on vacation, we'll take care of that piece. You don't have to route the report to your manager -- all you have to do is put the document in the right space.

That's the advice that I'd give. Try to consider expanding the scope of what you're doing. Look at the capabilities of the software, and try to figure out what else you can do to benefit the users. In essence, content management becomes a by-product of a business process. Consider usability in the context of business requirements, and not just the context of ECM.

JZ: If you could make a wish list for ECM software vendors in general to make your life easier, what would be on it?

[laughs] In my grand dream, I want IBM Watson just for me.

Metadata and categorization is still a task that requires the SME to make a choice. With respect to SharePoint, Microsoft did a good job with managed metadata. You can type in a facility, or any alias, and get the facility name and named insured. When our users have multiple different names for the same facility, that is very helpful.

But more automated metadata generation would be at the top of my wish list. For example, if I wrote a report with section titles, why do I have to tag the metadata? Why can't the system just read the document, extract the topic, and generate metadata?

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Jill Hart has been in the biz long enough to see a major shift in both consumer and B2B software design processes, from technology-focused to user-focused. She works with IT folks like Dan to bridge the gap between users and software solution providers.

JZ: You've been called a "flat-out usability expert," and we're excited to have a chance to get some insight into the UX world. What is your background, and what path led you to this expertise?

My first interest in UX came when I was a trainer in the insurance industry. People like myself were struggling to use a cumbersome green-screen system. Then I learned about software design, and the human factors discipline. I quickly realized that was my passion and it’s combined nicely with my experience in marketing and project management. It’s really a convergence of multiple disciplines, with the goal of designing things that are aligned with the way customers think, and delivering them according to a project plan.

JZ: User experience is getting more and more buzz these days in the context of enterprise application projects in general, and enterprise content management projects in particular. This represents quite a shift from the enterprise application development world of 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. What are the major factors behind this shift? Are consumer applications influencing the world of enterprise apps?

I often say to people that the pioneering days of technology are over. Consumers used to be very tolerant of technology that wasn’t easy to use. When something didn’t work, in many cases they would think it's me, I’m too dumb to use this system. Today, we have multiple generations of people using technology, and users have much more confidence. If they're not able to complete a task, they realize that the problem isn't them, it's the poorly designed system they’re trying to use.

The 50+ demographic is more likely to internalize the user experience problems, but younger users know better, and they’re not afraid to say the system stinks. They are confident as technology users.

That shift has changed the demands of technology design, and because of that, more companies realize if their system is not easy to use, their customers will go somewhere else, where it is easy to use. Early adopters may be a little different, but mainstream users are not buying products because they want to own the technology. They're buying products for the benefits of the technology, and savvy companies know this. That's a huge shift in the marketplace.

Are consumer apps influencing enterprise apps? Absolutely. Think about Angry Birds. Why has this been so successful? It's simple, silly, and not artistic. The popularity is almost counter-intuitive. I first saw it 10 months ago - somebody showed it to me on their iPad. I'm not a gamer, but Angry Birds was easy, fun, and multi-generational. After I played it I downloaded it. I played it with my 17-year-old daughter. It turned out to be a great way for a mom to communicate with a teenager.

Apps have helped to level the ease of use playing field. Familiarity and ease of learning make them more approachable. And knowing that apps can be easy to use, expectations of business applications are going to shift too.

JZ: The title of your presentation at AIIM NE is "Think Like Your Customers: 3 Steps to Greater Market Share." You've caught my attention with that title! Can you tell me about the 3 steps?

In that presentation, I wear both a project manager and a UX designer hat. There are multiple levels to it, but in general:

  1. Know your stakeholders. What are their motivations? Within that, get to know your customers. Do some market research, understand the other products in the space, and create a persona for typical and atypical customers.

  2. Listen to what customers have to say EARLY in the design process. Do some paper prototyping - put together some easy mockups of what your research has indicated that people want.

  3. Show it to them. Do some testing and get feedback. Even a piece of paper with a design of a couple of screens, and a scenario related to a task will enable customer feedback and help guide a project team in the right direction.


JZ: You used a clever technique during the AIIM NE Usability Matters presentation. Dan gave his presentation before you, and you took a picture of him during his talk and quoted him in your slide deck. Besides being a great technique, you were driving home an interesting point about user experience. Tell me about Dan's quote and how it played into the context of your presentation.

[laughs] That was so much fun. The picture went back to before Dan realized the value of his customers’ input. The quote was: “Next time I don't want to wait until a year into the project to find out what our customers really want to do.”

Certain elements of the design process transformed for Dan and demonstrated the value of the design process itself. He realized it wasn't just about the technology, it was about how stakeholders were going to use the technology, and how were they going to benefit from using it.

He realized that late in the design process, as many people do. If he had brought them in earlier, it could have reduced design to launch timeline. This illustrates all 3 points mentioned above, which help you design something right the first time.

JZ: Your website had a section called "The ROI of Customer Experience." How do you measure the ROI of improved customer experience in the context of an enterprise application?

For enterprise applications, ROI of good usability is typically measured in terms of time, money, capacity to eliminate redundant work, and error avoidance.

For ECM in particular, ease of use is a very important aspect of the user experience, and the perception of value of the application. Most organizations have an existing method to store documents, such as desktop folders, shared drives, etc. The benefits of an ECM system from the user perspective are about productivity, efficiency and collaboration. If I have a centralized content management system, everything is more efficient for my projects. Things are easier to find. People know from project to project where things are stored. People are able to get more work done because of the storage methodology, and saving time in searching file folders.

No matter how I look at content management, in the absence of effectiveness and ease of use, the business value of the system cannot reach its full potential. This applies to any enterprise application.

JZ: What kinds of UX trends do you think we'll be seeing in the next year or so?

One of the things I've seen is the impact of social media on the recognition of the value of customer experience. Companies used to just say “yeah, yeah, yeah” when somebody reported a problem. Now, companies are much more in tune to what customers are saying, both good and bad. Conversations between businesses and customers are changing. We tend to pay more attention to the voice of customer than we did in the past, because of Twitter and other social media tools. And many companies are actually hiring people to manage social media feedback.

I think there's going to be a shift, and not just because of communication forms like Twitter. There are more informal conversations happening between customers and companies, and it hasn't reached its peak. We'll see an increase in social collaboration during the next year as well as in future years.

Ultimately, tighter collaboration with the customer will lead to more innovation. You innovate as a result of an understanding of your customers. Because of the transparency and speed of social media interactions, companies get to know their customers better, and are better able to effectively innovate. It’s a win–win.


Category: Industry Insight
Tagged: Content Management