As a developer working on a CMS system, I thought it would be useful to have content tagged with a few simple classifications. The tagging process was easy enough, taking not much more than a few mouse clicks to add one of a just a few predetermined tags to a piece of content.
To my genuine surprise, no one was that interested in this additional aspect of their workflow. So I went and asked one of the users what the big deal was.
“I don’t understand why I would bother. Maybe you can tell me why this is important.”
I didn’t have a good answer. The best I could come up with was that tagging allowed us to generate metrics and reports. Or it would eventually if we had enough data for it to be useful. The explanation felt hollow as it was coming out of my mouth.
The truth is that I had assumed that tagging was a simple enough exercise and that it would eventually lead to valuable insights. Not that I had any particular plan for how tagging would be used, I had never seen these metrics being useful in the past, and I never really considered that forcing users to perform tagging was actually a poor user experience. But I was generating metrics, how could this be a bad thing?
That experience came to mind when I saw this comic:
I think we have all been on the receiving end of an enterprise application that is so enamored by the notion of collecting data that it actually ends up being a hindrance rather than a help. I can’t be the only one who puts in whatever value will satisfy a field validation in order to just get on with my actual job.
It is no coincidence that apps that live or buy by user engagement have made very determined moves away from the kind of form hell that so many of us accept as the norm when working with business software. As developers, we A/B test the effects of adding just one more question to an online form, trying to work out if the corresponding drop in engagement is worth the benefit of the additional information. Meanwhile, inside of the corporate firewall, our enterprise management apps bombard us with dozens of fields. You only have to see one date field whose only valid inputs are 1 day every month, but with the ability to select any one of the 30 other invalid options, to realize just how terrible this user experience is. And then at the end of the month, those querying these systems are pulling their hair out wondering why employees are not loving filling them out time and time again with detailed and accurate information.
What I learned from those who questioned my efforts to collect data for the sake of data was this:
Every manual step in a process significant reduces the number of people who know the step exists, understand or care why the step is necessary, and who will faithfully implement it.
They say a carpenter’s house always needs work, and the same applies to an enterprise’s internal apps. They are almost universally poorly designed, and would never gain adoption in today’s app-based economy. Until enterprise’s treat their employees with the same attention to detail as they treat their customers with, form hell will be burning just beyond the corporate firewall.