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09 September 2014

Software is like house building

We have been building houses since time immemorial. The building – or development – of software is a discipline dating back only a few decades. Despite their difference in age, the two subject areas have more in common than you would initially think. That is why I often use construction as an analogy to talk about user experience design for software.

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A house is a collection of elements that all serve a purpose: walls form a partition between spaces, a door allows you to enter and exit, a window lets in sunlight and the roof keeps out rain and wind.

All these elements only become useful when laid out logically in relation to each other. An architect bases his design on the future resident and how this person organises and uses this house. It is important that the rooms are laid out as efficiently as possible and that the window is located where it benefits the resident the most.

The same applies to the design of software applications. In the early days of software design, the main focus was on functionality that gave added value to the users (the roof to keep you dry). Today, user experience is an important selling point and this experience represents more than a collection of independent functionalities alone.

New disciplines such as interaction designers, graphic designers and usability researchers ask questions such as:

  • What objective does this group of users want to achieve with the use of this software application?
  • What is the desired sequence of actions and system responses in order to achieve this objective as conveniently as possible?
  • And how does the behaviour of the user interface, the visual design and language contribute to the user experience?

This approach – in which the user and the design of user interfaces are the focal point – is driven by a trend which is sometimes also referred to as user-centred design. Following the rise of mobile apps and web applications such as Google Docs and Gmail, consumers have more than ever become used to extremely user-friendly solutions. Whereas a decade ago, it was not unusual for software to be delivered with a user manual or extensive training, these days it is more important than ever before for software and apps – also for the business market – to be plug-and-play and user-friendly.

Jumping back to the comparison of building a house: you expect that the kitchen and dining room are adjacent. And the water supply and discharge of a washing machine should be installed in the utility room or attic and not in the living room.

Early in the development phase, development teams are made to think about what a user needs and how he or she is going use the software. It is no use designing functionality first and reviewing the whole thereafter. Here, the same principle applies when installing sewers or the water supply: how and where strongly depends on the ultimate function of the space that will be built on top.

This comparison can be drawn parallel to the different levels of user interaction design. In addition to the function of a space, or the manner in which the resident uses it, you can only start painting and wallpapering once the walls have been erected. In other words, the look and feel of the user interface depends on the functionality and the manner in which a user will be using the software.

User-centred design is about understanding the user. Hence it is important to define different groups of users: not everyone uses software in the same manner. By involving users in the (design) process from an early stage on, you are in the best possible position to meet their requirements.

Planon Accelerator 6.0 was developed on the basis of this thought. Planon’s team of user experience designers and developers subjected the design and user-friendliness of the software to a critical review and implemented many improvements. In order to prevent that a resident needs to go back to the front door in order to flip the light switch for the bathroom, various functionalities in the menu were moved to more logical places. As a result, the latest release of the Planon software is even more intuitive and straightforward than previous versions. Various homepages have been set up for different groups of users: self-service users use a different interface than specialist users. As a result, every type of user enters through a front door which opens up into a space in line with his/her needs.

In essence, Planon Accelerator is still the flexible, state-of-the-art IWMS solution users have grown accustomed to. However, the new user interface ensures users can use the software to its full potential and that it is easy on the eye, just as an architect would set out to achieve.

Robert Eijlander
Product Manager User Experience Design