This post is by Doug Shumway, ELGL member and the CEO and founder of BoardSync. Doug offers some advice on how to demo software products to ensure that their design and functionality meets your local government’s needs.
Think about the design of software traditionally used by governments. You probably don’t get as excited as you
would about the latest Apple announcement. In fact, the words that come to mind might be more along the lines of ‘functional,’ ‘practical’ or ‘boring.’ Your mind wanders…you’re warding off a yawn. But have you ever thought about what ‘design’ really means? It probably doesn’t mean what you think it does.
When it comes to software, ‘design’ has little to do with making something sexy. It’s not about pretty colors, beautiful fonts or a modern look. It’s actually about usability. Good software is easy-to-use for all of its users. It will make you more effective and efficient, but with a lot less effort. Apple’s software is sexy, but it’s successful because it’s easy for people to use. Some might even say it’s very functional (doesn’t seem such a bad word now, does it?).
So why is this important in government? Well, working in government, you have probably encountered the mindset of “this is how we’ve always done things.” Software designed for the government space typically tries to fit within that mindset rather than change it. It may be functional in that it will eventually help you complete a task, but it might not be easy for you to complete that task. Chances are, you’ve worked with clunky technology in your job—and it may have soured your attitude towards trying new software.
Hesitation towards newer technology has always been common in the government space, whether it’s due to the perception of higher costs, an older workforce who feel they don’t need technology or simply past experiences with technology that have been complicated and uncomfortable.
But all that is changing. Software providers are getting wise to the fact that government offices benefit from—and appreciate—quality design as much as corporate America does.
Good design is easy to use, which helps eliminate artificial barriers. For example, BoardSync has converted customers from countless other meeting management platforms to our Meetings platform.
The number one reason, by far, was that staff thought the old software was way too complicated, so they refused to use it. If a system has four different navigation areas and 46 buttons on one screen, chances are it’s not that easy to use. And if it’s not easy to use, then no one will use it. And if no one uses it…
So, how can you tell if a system has great design? Begin at the beginning.
When you are selecting a software vendor, don’t ask “What can your software do for me?” Instead, ask “What is important to you?” This might throw them a little, but the good vendors will be glad you asked.
They won’t talk about a specific feature or function—and they won’t cop out and say that customer support is the most important thing. They will talk about their vision for the software, and how they have thought long and hard about how it will be used. For Meetings, we have always focused first and foremost on the user experience.
Next, ask for a demo where you can really walk through the user experience. Here are some questions you should think about and ask:
- When you look at a screen or page, do you automatically know what to do next? Software that is well-designed will, in many cases, be intuitive and require minimal training.
- Does the system interface change, based on a user’s security rights? Nothing frustrates users more than seeing ten buttons or functions on their screen when they only have access to one. Good design will “gray out” functions for users who do not have access.
- Does the system use colors as a contextual clue? For example, when a user is adding content to our system, those buttons are always green, so staff knows to look for the green button to add content. Since there is only one green button on the screen, they always know exactly what to select.
- Does the system have responsive design? This sounds technical, but all it means is that the system adjusts to your screen size, whether it is a desktop, laptop or tablet.
If the answer to all these questions is ‘yes,’ then you should consider buying the software, assuming it meets your functional requirements.
And the next time someone tries to sell you software that looks really pretty, tell them it’s what’s inside that counts and you’d like to learn more about the design first.