Underneath the carnival excitement of the information revolution I hear a quiet but persistent murmur warning of an emerging technology crisis. Not everything is right in the information economy.
We usability professionals see the problem every day. Software has become the critical element of e-business but it is often a poor fit to the real needs of the business. This lack of fit manifests itself in many ways: software that doesn't perform all the functions needed; software that's difficult to learn and awkward to use; software that fails to create a pleasant and empowering user experience; software that is delivered late and costs far more than originally planned. Despite staggering investments in software, the end product is not meeting expectations.
In the early stages of e-business, just being an innovator was enough. But the honeymoon is over. E-business has become serious business. According to the Boston Consulting Group, e-commerce will account for 24% of all business-to-business commerce in 2003, with a transaction value of $2.8 trillion. Consumer sales reached $36 billion in 1999 and continue to grow. As more businesses move into e-commerce, competition becomes savage. Dot.com firms are tumbling off their over inflated clouds and facing a grim reality back on earth. To survive in the e-jungle, corporations must be focused and effective; there is little room at this stage for chaos, indecision and mediocrity.
As usability professionals, I believe we have a critical role to play in the second act of the e-business drama. We understand how to create successful user experiences; we understand how to translate business process into screens and icons. Now, perhaps, we must also assume the role of organizational therapist, or at least of translator.
At the core of the problem is a dysfunctional relationship between developers and the business. Like a warring family, there are resentments and miscommunications. And, as any family therapist will tell you, to solve the problem both sides need to change. Perhaps it is no accident that so many of us entered the field of usability from psychology. It is essential that the change occur because the post-industrial economy requires a post-industrial organization in which technology is tightly coupled to the business process. Old, ineffective behaviors must yield to new organizational paradigms. And a mutually supportive and effective relationship between technologists and the business is key to success.
Can usability be the bridge? As a profession I believe we have the right skills and knowledge. We are increasingly accepted as an important part of the product development process. We are uniquely positioned to vision how new technology will work for our colleagues and customers. If we can translate that vision into the dual languages of business and technology, perhaps we can help the two sides communicate and align. As we enter the second act of the e-business transformation, the cost and risk of business' failure to assume full partnership with developers is unacceptable. It's a problem we must address and solve now.