There are lots of different kinds of company out there, and many of them have a requirement for some form of custom software. This means that there is a vast array of environments that an Interaction Designer can work in. We frequently talk about the distinction between agency and client side. However, agencies vary widely in their style and the type of software they typically deal with, and the same is true on the client side.
This article attempts a better description of the software landscape, by analysing software and software companies using three parameters:
- The importance of brand.
- The level of functionality.
- The centrality of software in the life of the business.
The Brand spectrum captures the idea that software varies in the degree to which it is expected to represent the brand of the company.
At the high end of the spectrum, software must strongly evoke and support a brand. This is usually because it is directly used by customers and customers have immediate access to competitors and a low cost of switching – this is the case for many web-based businesses.
Decisions about look and feel may win out over considerations of efficiency and ease-of-use in this part of the spectrum and there is a strong relationship between the design of the software, and brand and marketing efforts. Designs are more likely to use a large amount of white space and glossy imagery. Getting the brand right is a vital part of winning and keeping customers, and supporting an overall business model – e.g. premium pricing.
In the middle part of the spectrum, the software needs to support the brand, but it is not a dominant force. This may be because the business is less brand-driven; because the purchase decision has already been made once the customer is using the software; or because the cost of switching to a competitor is high.
In this area, efficiency and ease of use are more important, and designs will typically make more careful use of space.
At the low end of the brand spectrum, visual appeal and quality finish are considered to be of low importance and the focus is typically on functionality and cost. This is usually because the software is internal, rather than customer-facing; the software is imposed, rather than chosen by the user (e.g. software for call centre staff); or because the cost of switching to a competitor is very high.
Efficiency may be a consideration here, but ease-of-use is often neglected, with an expectation that users will be trained instead. At the extreme end, software can be ugly and poorly designed.
The Functionality spectrum captures the fact that software varies in the degree of functionality that it offers.
At the low end are purely informational websites and simple shopping sites.
Mid-range software might include larger-scale shopping sites, travel booking systems, CRM systems, project management solutions and betting sites.
Highly functional software might include Microsoft, Apple and Adobe desktop products, financial data and trading systems, medical software and large-scale database solutions like Oracle and Siebel.
The Centrality spectrum rates companies in the role that software plays in their business.
At the low end of the spectrum, software is not fundamental to the business – instead it may be useful for advertising and bringing in business. This might mean simply having a website with contract details.
Further up the scale, a website might be one access point into the business, but not the only one – for example, a shop may have bricks-and-mortar stores as well as selling online.
In the middle of the spectrum, software is the main access point to the business, but the business is founded on providing some form of non-software goods and services.
Further up the spectrum, the web may be the only access point to the business, although the core business is providing some form of goods and services.
Even more extreme than this, for some companies, the software is the business – they make money specifically from the provision or sale of the software they create. Making software is central to everything they do.
A similar spectrum exists for internal software:
At the lower level, internal systems are a necessary evil – something that helps to ensure good running of the core business, but isn’t considered to be a competitive advantage.
Further up the scale, the internal systems are crucial to the running of the business and perhaps are considered to be a competitive advantage – e.g. the software that support Amazon’s order and distribution system.
At the extreme end are companies that create large-scale enterprise software solutions like Oracle and Siebel. In these cases, the software is the business, but it is made to be sold to others as an internal software solution.
VISUALISING THE LANDSCAPE
Plotting these three parameters onto a single chart gives the following diagram. Brand is represented vertically, Centrality takes the horizontal axis and degree of functionality is represented by the size of the bubbles.
I have added a number of examples, but these are all speculative – no doubt opinions will vary as to the proper placement of each one, but they are useful as a starting point.
The top right quarter primarily contains websites for businesses that also have other access points. Some are more focused on Brand (e.g. Virgin Atlantic), while others are more prosaic (e.g. Tesco.com).
This is the arena in which Digital Agencies typically operate – working with clients on periodic redesigns or extensions of their digital offering. Work often ties closely into media campaigns and is focused as much on creating a relationship with the customer as creating a highly usable software experience.
Clients in this sector may have their own in-house user experience and design teams, but this is not always the case. Often, the roles are more executive and less practical, with the focus on developing a strategy, planning, obtaining budgets and selecting agency partners.
The top left quarter tends to contain web-based businesses, for whom the web is the critical or only access point.
In this arena, since the software is so crucial to the business, companies tend to have their own internal user experience and design teams. They will often use a pool of contractors as a way of managing variable demand. They may also work with agencies for this reason and as a source of extra creative input during major redesigns.
Towards the bottom of the chart, spanning the left and right quarters is a group that primarily contains internal software. This is an arena in which the software is often poor, with limited investment of time and money. Design and usability is often considered to be of limited importance – in many cases there is no official ‘design’ ownership within these projects. Where they are involved, designers need to work hard to make a case for the return on investment of producing better solutions. Often software is built and shipped, and then little or no ongoing work is done to progressively improve and update it.
Since the value of investment is not clear to businesses many systems are bought in, customised from existing solutions, or built by third parties under contract. In some cases, companies are starting to realise the benefit of creating better solutions in this area and working with specialised agencies to improve the usability and efficiency of these products. Typically this will happen first in those areas where the software, although internal, is crucial to the effective running of the business – e.g. internal bank trading solutions. Over time, internal teams may be founded to take over this work.
On the extreme left of the chart, is a group where the software is the product. This means the software is completely central to the business. They range in their degree of Brand expression: brand tends to be more important where customers are the actual users and where the cost of switching is not too high. Ease of use and efficiency are typically important here, as is the need to provide a high level of functionality. Since the software is both complex and critical to the business, it doesn’t make sense for companies in this arena to work with agencies – it would take too long for them to get up-to-speed.
Trends towards agile development, continuous delivery, and cloud-based solutions also mean that there should be a continuous effort to improve and update the software over time, creating a continuous need for design and user experience ownership – something that would be impossible or prohibitively expensive to do by partnering with an agency.