Software as a service has changed the way applications are deployed from the Web. It also has changed the way developers and business analysts must look at the user interface.
In the days of packaged applications, where ISVs would spend 18 months or more to deliver a fully functional application, the interface had to provide for everything users of that application might require. Today, SaaS applications are more targeted to a specific business need, with fewer features, and the UI development needs to be reflective of that, according to Paul McNamara, entrepreneur-in-residence at Adobe Systems, which makes tools for rich Internet application development and deployment.
Interfaces need to be “more powerful and more engaging,” he said. With AIR, Flash and Flex, Adobe offers developers a broad tool set to create richer interfaces, he pointed out. “There’s the consumerization of the enterprise user experience. At work, you’re confronted with a client-server interface that’s much less engaging than the consumer Internet.”
UI design was “focused on the heads-down user,” said Colleen Smith, SaaS managing director at Progress Software, which has created the OpenEdge development platform. “Now, the UI has to be more flexible. The application itself must be fully functional, but the UI design has to be geared to that user.”
Businesses don’t have the time to train users on new interfaces, so as applications add and remove services, the interfaces must be almost completely intuitive, Smith said. “You have to have simple Web entry, with more AJAX or rich capability, and it must be fully functional for the back end. You want to take the same code with different UI designs.”
It is this separation of the back-end code from the presentation layer “that gives business value to why we wanted that n-tier stack years ago,” she said.
John McRee, author of the book “Effective UI: The Art of Building Great User Experience in Software,” commented that software in most industries is mature and reaching feature saturation, so “the name of the game now is user experience. It’s now a major focus.”
McRee’s company, EffectiveUI, worked with the yearbook publishing company Herff Jones to create a Web-based system that he said is an example of the kind of targeted software that Web and cloud deployments enable. Typically, high school students work on their yearbooks in a 30-minute class, where they work on Adobe InDesign or the Quark publishing system. Much of the work in producing the yearbook goes into merging the files and reviewing them. So McRee’s team built an online yearbook portal with design templates, asset libraries and the ability to work collaboratively. Also, because it’s Web-based, students can work on their projects at home; they’re not tied to the school computers.
McRee said the new publishing system removes much of the functionality of InDesign or Quark that was “just noise” to students, who didn’t need that extensive a publishing package. “We made it more fun and engaging for the students. Their favorite things about working on the yearbook was looking at photos, so we focused on that” in creating the yearbook portal, he said.
And, he noted, an added benefit is that the teachers working with the students on the yearbook could spend more time discussing design theory and writing, rather than having to spend a lot of time teaching them how to use the publishing tool. He said it took the company nine months to roll out the software to the public, and that updates can be done in less time than the usual 12- to 18-month cycle that big software packages require for revisions.
Progress, which offers its UI development platform to ISVs, had to change its business model to accommodate service-based application development. When it became clear that companies would rather “pay by the drink” than buy licenses for 3,000, only to see many sit idle for long periods of time, Smith said Progress realized it could not charge license fees to its customers.
Now, they give the product for no charge, but when the ISV’s application gets purchased, Progress gets a percentage of what the ISV gets paid. “It’s a shared risk, shared reward deal,” she said. “At first, our CEO said, ‘What are we doing?’ The first year we took a [revenue] hit, but in year four, there’s now a nice annuity stream, as we have more than 3,000 partners with thousands of end users. It’s become a volume business.”