Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Castlight GigaOm Panel And SAP's 450 Designers...

Posted by Tom Foremski - November 21, 2014

GigaOM

Om Malik (right), founder of GigaOM at SF Jazz Center

I had lots of great feedback this week from my participation on panel organized by Castlight Health, a San Francisco based startup focused on making healthcare choices easier for employees. Design is tremendously important when it comes to the complex subject of healthcare where employee decisions can have life or death outcomes. 

The GigaOm Roadmap conference had the theme of "Invisible Design" and my job on the Castlight panel was to provide some context and a long view from my perch as a Silicon Valley watcher, and my many years as a beat reporter covering enterprise tech.

Fellow panelists were: Holger Mueller of Constellation Research, the moderator; Zia Yusuf a lecturer at Stanford Design School and former senior exec at SAP;  Christine Evans enterprise marketing for FitBit; and Maeve O'Mara of Castlight speaking about lessons learned from designing a platform for enterprise healthcare. 

I've sat through hundreds of panels in my career and hundreds were bad and intensely boring. Granted, conferences are about the connections, the conversations in the hallways and the parties and the panels are considered marketing platforms rather than a serious attempt at discussion. But it doesn't have to be that way.

I sat quietly for a while but I couldn't stop myself from interrupting Zia Yusuf, when he was talking, and talking, about the importance of design, designing for the customer experience, how design is so important to everything at SAP, etc, and how SAP had 40 or 50 full-time designers... 

I'm a fan of the company and its people but SAP software is not noted for incredible design. Its user interfaces are straightforward, form-based, lots of small rectangles and small words.

I was flabbergasted and asked, "What do forty or fifty SAP designers do all day?!"

Yusuf, replied, "It's not forty or fifty, it's 450 SAP designers." 

I was shocked and asked again, what do they do all day? I would find it hard to imagine that Versace or Pierre Cardin had 450 designers let alone SAP, a solid, dependable, enterprise software company used by nearly every Fortune 1000 corporation. Do they sketch out new designs for payroll software interfaces? 

I did not understand Yusuf's reply it seemed full of trendy and obvious statements about teaching engineers design methodology, design thinking, focus on users and functionality, etc. 

Just because someone says design is important doesn't mean we get good design. Google Glass is a great example, here the design failed spectacularly even though big name designers were involved, it failed on looks and it failed on social design — it completely ignored the social environment, and included bizarre anti-social controls, such as using the wink of an eye to take a photo. 

The beauty of cloud-based apps is that the developer can see in real-time how the app is used, what features are clicked, how long is it taking users to finish tasks, etc. Yusuf made a fair point that SAP grew up in the days before the web and most of its apps run on data centers rather than the cloud and so that's partly why it has so many designers.

Cloud based enterprise apps can evolve and optimize their designs faster, and in ways that enterprise apps never could. The cloud could lead to marked improvements in worker productivity from improved enterprise app interfaces.

I still don't know what SAP's 450 designers do all day but I would suggest they look at Castlight's, and other cloud enterprise apps and try to import the best practices they find. Those designs have been refined through the observation of millions of user interface interactions. 

There's no sense in reinventing the wheel — common UI features speed things for everyone, no one wants to learn a new interface. And they shouldn't need to.

After the panel I had several people thank me for speaking up and challenging some of the speakers. And it turned into a far more interesting event. 

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