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The key to application success? Usability…

By Clive Longbottom

canstockphoto7718964The business has made a request to IT for something to be done. IT has done all its due diligence and has come up with a system that meets every technical requirement laid down by the business. IT acquires the software, provisions it and sits back waiting for the undoubted thanks from the business for a job well done. Instead, the business gets quite irate – what does IT think it was doing in forcing such a half-baked system on the end-users?

What tends to be the case here is that IT (and often the business as well) forgets the one really important issue – any system has to be as intuitive and transparent in use to the users as possible. Anything that is seen as getting in the way of the user will be worked around. And this working around can make the original problem worse than it was.

Amongst more technical areas where this tends to be the case are data aggregation, analysis and reporting, along with many areas of customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP). However, an area that should be of very high importance is one that impacts pretty much everyone involved in the business – document management, or more to the point, information management. Many enterprise document management (EDM) systems require documents to be placed in the system either through an import or specific export mechanism. During such action, the user is expected to input a lot more information on the document, such as what level of classification it is, tags around what the document is about and so on.

Instead, users either take default settings or just don’t bother to put the document in the system at all. Certainly, such lack of transparent usage means that it is only the ‘really important’ documents that are deemed worthwhile for all that trouble.

Just what is ‘really important’ though? Sure, those documents that the organisation is mandated by law to submit to a central entity are. Anything that is to do with mergers and acquisitions probably are as well. How about that document that Joe down the corridor has been working on looking at the future pricing of raw materials used in the organisation’s products? How about the results of the web search that Mary has done looking at the performance of the organisation’s main competitors?

Further, what about all the extra people who are key contributors to the organisation’s value chain these days – suppliers, customers, contractors, consultants, etc – how can information be shared by and to them in an efficient and secure manner?

In comes enterprise information management (EIM). By managing information assets from a much earlier stage of their lifecycle, the business gets the control and management of the assets that it requires.

However, the system must not make usage harder for users: any extra input required by the user must be offset by the overall value that they perceive coming out from the system.

So – rather than a system that requires the user to make a physical decision to put the information asset in the system, start with templates. Use metadata around these templates so that document classification is decided as soon as the user starts work on the document. As such, a document on a general subject – say, ‘Summary of discussions on usage of tea bags in the canteen’ – can be worked on by opening a ‘Public’ template. One on ‘Expected future pricing of raw materials from suppliers’ can be created from a template with a ‘Commercial in confidence’ classification. And so on.

As the document is worked on, versioning can be applied. Through the use of a global namespace, the documents do not need to be stored in a single, large database – they can be left where they are created with logical pointers being stored in the system to provide access to them. The documents can be indexed to provide easy search and recovery capabilities across the whole enterprise.

Those in the extended value chain can be invited to work on the documents through the provision of secure links – and their activities around the information asset logged at every stage.

At every stage, the user is helped by the system, rather than hindered. The value to the individual and the business is enhanced with very little, if any, extra work involved from the user. The business gains greater governance, risk and compliance (GRC) capabilities; the individual gains through having greater input into decisions being made.

Ease of usage in any system is key. Hiding the complexities of enterprise systems is not easy, but without it being done, even the most technically competent and elegant system is bound to fail.

Quocirca has authored a report on how an EIM system must adhere to the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) principle, commissioned by M-Files. The report can be downloaded here.

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