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Productivity

Exec SummaryUser Experience (UX) is increasingly becoming the USP of similar products. Easy-to-use means lower costs and quicker efficiencies gained on the learning curve. This in turn can be used to show the bottom-line benefits of a product.

The learning curve is also a reason why User Experience (UX) is becoming such a hot issue at the moment. As our world and gadgets become more complex, there comes a point at which the law of diminishing returns kicks in and some things are simply not worth the effort. If, however, that effort is minimal, then the value offered by the product does not have to be as huge in order for people to buy it.

Obviously, this doesn’t change the basics of strategy/sales – you still have to offer a larger benefit than your competition. However, if the products offer a very similar outcome, the one that is easiest (or more intuitive) to use will usually win. This is more and more becoming something that customers value as a unique selling proposition (USP).

Consumer attention spans are waning. People want the outcome itself, not to spend time learning how to achieve that outcome.

For example, I was recently examining technical support ticket desk SaaS products. My needs were as follows:

  1. access for external customers controlled via login
  2. simple and automatic segregation of tickets based on a customer
  3. reports to show time spent on a particular customer
  4. submission of tickets by email
  5. knowledge base (also access-controlled)

Some products were aimed at internal IT desks within a large corporation (and seemed very good at that job) and therefore I did not fit their customer profile. However, many (most?) other products were aimed at customers exactly like me. Of these, all of them addressed the points on my checklist above – but they did so in very different ways.

I’m not going to name any names, but, in my eyes, there were clear winners and losers.

One product in particular (let’s call it “Product A”) had a powerful and flexible product that met my needs. Unfortunately, all of that complexity was visible at once when using the product. There were so many menus and buttons shown that my poor 13″ laptop screen was overwhelmed – nearly half the screen was taken up by them, leaving me with little room for anything else (1024×768 people!).

The other products I saw (also complex and powerful) had far simpler interfaces, with the complexity…not hidden, but tucked away inside an intuitive menu system. The same functionality as in Product A was easy to find, but did not use up all of my screen’s real-estate. Furthermore, were I to place one of my non-technical salespeople in front of Product A, they would be just as overwhelmed as my screen by all of the options. Simply answering a ticket would be a struggle. Many would need to be answered before any efficiencies would kick in. For this reason alone, Product A did not make the cut.

Product B, the product that was eventually chosen, provides a far simpler experience to the end-user. My salesperson can log in, see what tickets are assigned to them, and answer those tickets via a simple interface. The complexity is hidden from the user and only accessible to an admin like myself – which is, I think, how it should be. The time that I invest in setting up the system is an up-front/one-off chunk of time. Once the system has been set up, it should then operate in that way for as long as is needed. The complex options do not need to be visible to everybody.

In summary, user experience and the learning curve are very closely linked these days. The internet has made it cheaper and easier for products to be launched, many of them attacking the same user segments. The key differentiator of these products is increasingly becoming how easy they are to learn/use. Easier to use means quicker efficiencies gained, which means lower training costs, which means it is easier to justify expenditure on that system with a cost-benefit analysis.

Update – 17 Sept 2012: This is a really good article along the same lines from Fast Company Design. It talks about how a good User Interface will play a huge part in any startup’s bid to be great.

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Exec SummaryThe learning curve is real. It maps how quickly task efficiency can be gained by repeating that task. This can be used to predict the cost of introducing a new task to a workforce for cost-benefit analysis.

Maybe it’s because I’m an engineer, maybe it’s because I’m just a little bit crazy, but I love assembling my own furniture! Ikea is like “big-boy Lego” to me. Opening the boxes, reading the instructions, putting the pieces together, swearing as I drop the side of a wardrobe on my foot, etc. – it’s all part of a process of creation. I feel a lot more attachment to furniture in which I have taken part in creating.

In fact, when I had moved home from Germany and was looking for a job, my parents’ new bed was delivered to the house. It was a complicated bed with remote controls for raising and lowering the head and legs. I opened the boxes and assembled the bed in about an hour. An hour after that again, the doorbell rang. It was the bed-assembly guy. I had to explain that I’d done his work for him.

Having just moved to a barely furnished flat in London, I’ve been assembling quite a bit of Ikea furniture this week. One of the pieces of furniture was a sideboard for the hall with four drawers. These drawers were the easiest to assemble while sitting down, so I started with them. The first drawer was a bit slow, because I had to decipher which screws, etc. to use. For the second drawer, I had the pieces of wood lined up in the correct places, and the bags of screws to hand. By the third drawer, I had all of the required screws out of the bag up front, and was motoring along quite happily.

Learning Curve” is a phrase that we use in everyday language. If we say that something has a steep learning curve, we mean that it is difficult to learn, or takes time to learn. However, the learning curve is a concept used in management accounting and economics for describing the efficiencies gained by people who are doing the same task over and over again. The curve itself is a mathematical model that graphs some measure of productivity vs time (or the number of times the task has been performed).

What the learning curve boils down to is how quickly your efficiency in doing a task rises as you repeatedly do that task. On the job learning, so to speak. Simpler tasks, like building Ikea drawers, are a lot faster after only one or two iterations of the task. More complex tasks, such as partitioning a hard-drive in order to install a computer operating system, require more learning and, therefore, it will take longer to see the same efficiencies.

This relationship between productivity and time is the learning curve for that particular task.

But why is it interesting?

One reason that it is so useful in management accounting is that it can be used to predict the productivity of a workforce when a new task is introduced. This productivity information can, in turn, be used to see if profits will outweigh costs in the long run and, ultimately, if that new task is worth introducing in the first place.

In other words, it can be used to avoid costly mistakes – and if you’ve every worked in sales, you’ll know that the primary concern of most managers is to not be seen to make a mistake (especially a costly one).

I have recently started a job with a company called 1io. We are using the methods described by “Personal Kanban”, and the tools at LeankitKanban.com in order to organise our tasks and time. It is part of the “agile” workflow used by so many software organisations.

I am finding it to be incredibly useful on many levels.

For starters, a core concept of Kanban is that there should be “information radiators”, meaning that there should be an easy way to see what is going on at any moment, without the need to go digging for any information. A Kanban board will do this by default. At a glance, it is possible to see what a person is doing at any time, what is on hold, why it is on hold, what still needs to be done, and what is important. Yes, a Kanban board can look quite full of sticky notes, but the organisation of those notes has meaning, which users can interpret quickly and easily.

As a user, I can use this radiation of information to show both my co-workers and my bosses exactly what it is that I’m doing at any given point. It also allows them to check if the next item they wish to add to my “to-do list” is more or less important than what I am working on right now. If it is less important, then they will not mind if I don’t get working on it right away. In other words, it makes it far easier for me to say, “I have to put that on hold right now, but I will get to it” because they see that I have a system in place – a system that will allow me to tackle every task without forgetting any.

This concept is, to quote Jim and Tonianne’s (very informative and well-written) book, “limiting your work in progress” (WIP). This limitation of the number of tasks that one is working on at any given moment is critical to working effectively. John Medina’s book, “Brain Rules”, also mentions how the human brain physically cannot multitask effectively. Multitasking is an inherently inefficient way of working. Kanban seeks to rectify this by allowing a person to concentrate on fewer tasks at a time, unlike the “to-do list”, which just throws every task into the “doing” pile at once. The Kanban board then allows all others to see what is one one’s plate at any time, demonstrating that one is not slacking off.

Beyond this information radiation, it is both mentally and physically satisfying to see one’s tasks go from the backlog, to “ready”, to “in process” and then to “done”. Each time a task is moved to “done”, the brain releases a bit of reward, which is motivation for doing more. Furthermore, even the number of tasks doesn’t seem so overwhelming when there’s a system in place and one can see the tasks getting done.

Finally, as a recent MBA graduate who was job-hunting for a few months, every interview I did asked about previous achievements. A CV should also have these achievements listed in order to attract employers. In other words, I should have been taking note of all my measurable achievements over my working life in order to use them in the future. Moreover, it is vital when filling out an annual review form to have a list one’s achievements for the year.

Kanban can help with this.

Everything in the “done” column of a Kanban board is something that can be pointed to along with the phrase, “I did this”. It is not necessary for one to create a special document and remember to update it regularly, if the collation of completed tasks is already part of one’s daily process. Of course, some of the tasks will be small and not relevant or worth mentioning on a CV. But even these small tasks usually serve as reminders of the larger project upon which we worked.

This is also a reason why I am using an online tool for my Kanban board alongside my office whiteboard – I won’t have to trawl through physical post-it notes in order to see my achievements.