Hook & Loop principal information architect and product manager for SoHo Xi Karen VanHouten told iTWire that Hook & Loop's involvement starts at the discovery phase, working with end users (that is, people who actually use the software in their everyday work) to identify problems that need to be solved.
The team makes a point of looking at the other tools users employ to get their jobs done, including low-tech items such as sticky notes.
Talking to and observing real users in their normal workplaces is the most important part, she said. It makes a big difference whether someone is using the software in an office, a warehouse, or outside in a yard, and observation is far more valuable than asking users what they want. (As Steve Jobs said, people don't know what they want until you show them - the point being that until you show an excavator to someone who wants holes dug more quickly, they are likely to ask for more people with shovels.)
An additional benefit of the discovery phase is that it provides an opportunity to get buy-in from all stakeholders at an early stage of the project, so the company doesn't waste time building something that doesn't address the real problems.
Having gained an understanding of what is required, Hook & Loop then moves into the design phase, which also involves architects and developers. That starts with brainstorming sessions, followed by a more formal design process that includes iterating through wireframe prototypes with user input.
Asked about the possibility of conflicts between the wishes of different groups of users, VanHouten said it's about looking for patterns of requirements, and if they can't be discerned then it is possible that the project scope was too wide and should be re-examined in case the underlying problem was misread.
For example, one project looked at simplifying the screens used for order entry, but people from different industries wanted different data fields to be prioritised. What they all had in common was that they were struggling to find the information they required, so Hook & Loop turned to improving "the findability of information."
Design projects involve at least two kinds of specialist, she said.
The information architect looks at the information a user needs to complete tasks, and how to structure and prioritise the various items - and that varies between users. For example, when a customer service representative looks at a sales order, he or she needs a different subset of information to a colleague working in accounts or warehousing.
It's about promoting the most relevant data and suppressing the less relevant, VanHouten said. But the type of device being used also comes into the decision: "Mobile has forced us to prioritise information." So the same 'screen' presented on a desktop, tablet or smartphone tends to be increasingly focussed on the most important data. (This can be seen in the illustration below.)
The information designer then needs to deal with how the various pieces fit together, and how visual styling can be used to help prioritise data.
Both roles involve ongoing contact with users to make sure the project is moving in the right direction, and also with developers to ensure that the design can be turned into reality.
Gaining that user involvement hasn't proved to a problem. When Infor set up a usability lab at one of its conferences, 75 people took part instead of the expected 20. "They really want to be involved in this process," VanHouten said. And employers see the advantage of allowing their people to take part in such investigations, as they realise that easier to use systems means reduced training costs.
Asked how expectations that desktop and mobile apps provide a native experience affects the design process, she said it is important to make a strategic decision to develop a native app or a responsive web app, and that depends on how people are expected to use the product. As little as two years ago, people were unlikely to do most of their work on a smartphone, but that is starting to happen, and where that is the case it makes sense to offer a native app.
Hook & Loop has already created a library of controls for responsive apps, to help developers create apps that present Infor's 'SoHo' style. And in order to meet platform-specific expectations for native apps, Hook & Loop is developing a similar set of native controls for iOS. If that approach proves successful, it might be repeated for Android.
"[SoHo] is a very light and airy style, we've had to add more breathing room," she said, explaining that it was designed with mobile devices in mind. Three different themes are provided, the normal 'light' look, a 'dark' theme for use in low-light situations, and a high-contrast variation that has been optimised for accessibility and for use on low-quality screens.
SoHo incorporates elements that are familiar to people that use Twitter, Facebook and other popular services, VanHouten said, as this reduces the need for them to relearn how to do things. "Either the user is going to be trained, or you have to do a lot more work in the development process."