If you're like me, you rely on a host of cloud applications to get your job done each day. While the convenience and familiarity of apps built for the Web is great, I can't help but notice the differences among the user interfaces (UIs) I use. Currently, all cloud-based ERP software vendors are approaching the user interface with their own design style. For users that work with multiple cloud apps each day, this can be disorienting - not to mention bad for productivity and usability.
As more products are built for the cloud, I believe that we ought to start thinking about creating a set of standards for what cloud-based applications should look and feel like. Getting there won't easy, so it's time to start talking about creating these standards today.
What's the Benefit of Standards?
Inconsististency in UI design has negative impacts on usability and productivity. It results in having to invest in more user training and can lead to costly user errors. A unified and consistent UI, on the other hand, can boost productivity.
The reduction in training time wouldn't even have to be significant in order to result in sizable cost savings. Consider a large company with several hundred users. If the learning curve for a cloud app were reduced from three days to two days, you could potentially save thousands of dollars on training--and have employees in the office for another day of work. Beyond that, a more familiar and consistent UI would help reduce the need for extensive technical support and documentation.
Cloud UI Standards Will Have to Evolve Over Time
Of course, working toward this end goal has to recognize the vast range of cloud apps available on the market. For instance, an ERP system is several orders of magnitude more complex than an email marketing system. So the idea is less to create a standard for specific elements and more to standardize the general elements.
I think Google apps are an instructive example of what I mean by this. While there is a big difference between Google Calendar and Google Docs, they share a lot of UI consistency. Even though they perform very different functions, the look and feel is very familiar. Because of this, mastering one app makes it much easier to master another.
The Google example is illustrative for another reason: the UI change was gradual and iterative. Google has taken an approach to UI development where it's rolled out small changes over time without trying to tackle every app at once. This allows the designers to learn what works best, and gives them the capability to incorporate new Web technologies as they are released. Furthermore, it allows Google to be able to incorporate the latest UI capabilities into their new releases.
I envision a Cloud UI standard evolving in much the same way. There are lots of iterations to the development process, but you're never quite "finished." By taking this approach to a set of UI standards, you'd gradually reach a point where UIs are relatively consistent across the board.
We Need Industry Collaboration to Get There
The end goal and benefits are pretty clear here. But achieving the goal will require collaboration on the part of an industry that's currently more focused on building out their own products rather than creating product UI consistency.
My friend Brian Sommer, founder of Vital Analysis, believes that something like a set of standards can only be achieved if "a vendor with a huge SaaS presence publishes a great library of standards." Who might those vendors be? Sommer suggested Salesforce, Oracle, and SAP as the top movers and shakers.
I tend to agree with him. But I also think that given the rapid innovation we're seeing in the consumer tech world, we could use some help from companies like Google, Adobe, and Apple. The industry recently got together to talk about creating standards for portablility. Why not get together to talk about standards for the user interface--and usability? We're a long way off from realizing something like this but I think we should start the conversation today.
Action Item: What are your thoughts on how to make this happen? Please leave me a comment below.
Footnotes: This article is adapted from original piece that appeared on Software Advice, an Austin-based research firm that specializes in helping buyers with their ERP software comparison.