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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Monday, March 12, 2007

'Tis the gift to be simple...

There is a lot of discussion of "usability" in software design circles. Everyone knows usability has a lot to do with simplicity - but as the old Shaker song tells us, it can be tricky to hone in on what true simplicity is.

For example, I've been thinking about a piece of our YMCA program that has been through a lot of evolution over the last decade. Back in 1997, a group of users at one of our Ys requested that we create a simplified process - a Wizard - for front-desk staff to register people for YMCA activities. They wanted a process that ignored most of the only occasionally used "special options" and provided a slimmed-down and streamlined way to handle most sign-ups. More advanced users could go to administrative screens in the relatively few cases where the Wizard did not suffice.

Let's make it SIMPLE! said the users. For example, it's great that Members Only lets us record unlimited addresses and phones on each person. But to enter a new registrant, we just need their home address and phone. And let's make it like a public web app - each screen should tell our users exactly what to do on that page, so no training will be needed. You don't need training to buy a book on Amazon, after all.

We were sold. We held tons of design meetings with the users, and unveiled the express registration to great oohing and ahhing.

Of course, as people started to use it, some design problems were found. One address and phone number were really not enough, for example. So we allowed both home and work. And special scholarships and discounts couldn't be left to the administrative pages after all: everyone needed to be able to add them as they took a registration. And for those special classes where YMCA buses were used, there should be a way to assign the participants to buses on the express reg. Going to the admin pages for bus route assignment was inconvenient.

You know where this is going. Users felt that the slimmed down pages had turned out to make registration more complicated - because users had to go elsewhere for all kinds of special cases. Over the years we've had to allow unlimited addresses and phones on the express registration - two was not enough either. We've had to allow the selection of specific days and weeks for people who cannot attend the entire session. We've had to let users override the system-determined pricing for a host of special cases.

What was really sad is that along the way, we we agreed to a request to remove the instructional text on the pages, because it was taking up valuable real-estate that could be filled with the buttons and links that give access to a host of special functions. They didn't want them hidden in menus where the were hard to find. They wanted them right on the page where it would be SIMPLE to find them.

Only now users are asking again why the Express Registration is so complicated. I'm looking forward to another round of simplifying this process - but this time I know that simplicity is not so easily attained!

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