Usability of Web Business Tools, Research on the Missing link

Ben Kepes from CloudAve recently wrote Is There a sweet spot for features? about usability issues in web applications offering more and more features everyday.

As he states:

It’s easy as pie to create a good looking and intuitive user experience when your solution only includes a few functional areas, but as you roll out further functionality all of a sudden that simplicity and intuitive feel starts to lose out to nested menus, complexity and options.

In my opinion, you have to solve two main issues:

  1. How do you combine keeping it simple for users with simple needs with offering a complete solution to power users.
  2. How do you display and browse your data, especially when the amount of features becomes huge.

Before going further, I encourage you to watch our first video about the BeeBole interface and features illustrating a few of the points discussed here.

How do you combine keeping it simple for users with simple needs with offering a complete solution to power users.

This issue is one of the core issues we wanted to solve with BeeBole.

We often look with envy at the US where you find a huge market with companies presenting similar needs.

But as a European start-up we knew from the beginning that we had to handle very different needs/languages/country specificity…

Add to that, the needs from different activity domains (a lawyer doesn’t require the same functionality than a web developer for example) and you end up with the following mantra: “Your Company Is Unique, Why Not Your Business Tools”.

The truth is that you can easily turn your application into a huge factory that allows the users to do everything they want, still, most of them will never benefit from more than half of your features when you get to that point.

It implies that half of your tool features become noise to them.

Personalized homepages like Netvibes or iGoogle were, in our opinion, a direct solution to that problem. Of course, you need to add some magic to the widgets/modules so they can exchange information in your screen, but the basis was there.

The idea is to offer as many features as you want in a solution that allows the user to determine which of these features he wants to see on his screen.

The screen would match each user’s country/job/language context as well as his/her personal way of working and not what the software provider has decided for him/her.

In other words, a perfect tune for your ears, without the unnecessary noise.

How do you display and browse information, especially when the amount of features becomes huge.

Most of the existing solutions will present their features gathered per functionality in tabs, sub-tabs and in the worst cases, sub-sub-tabs.

This system has advantages and disadvantages but it doesn’t reflect how most people work.

A few ideas:

  • Everyday, you need to perform certain actions with your tool.
    Other actions have to be performed on a weekly, monthly basis or once a year…
    So, it would make sense to present your daily actions in your dashboard and to let you perform those in the very first screen.
    Actions you don’t need to perform regularly would be available in sub-screens.
  • That list of actions might evolve during the year and might be different for certain groups of people.
    Here, it comes down to your tool’s flexibility. Again, we think that a module/widget approach is the best solution to solve this.
  • No tabs.
    Reichenstein (head of user experience at Mozilla) argues, speaking about the future of Firefox on ReadWriteWeb, that:

    tabs were a good solution for an earlier age of the Internet, when users hardly ever had more than ten tabs open at any given time. Now, however, as browsers are slowly turning into operating systems, a new paradigm for organizing this information has become necessary.

    Well, the same remains true for web business apps.
    Tabs are like writing in stone the direct access to data you need at all time, where your real needs might change depending on what you are doing with the tool at a given time.

I believe our approach definitively brings something different and encourage all of you to give us your feedback about this.

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