As Cloud applications proliferate, so do the number of diverse user interfaces (UIs) floating around. Currently, every Cloud vendor brings their own design flare to the UI. While this may be good for purposes of product differentiation, it can be disorienting for users who work with multiple Cloud apps on a daily basis. It can also have negative impacts on productivity and usability.
I think we’re at a point when we need to start thinking about creating a set of standards for what a Cloud-based application should look and feel like. Moving toward a set of standards will by no means be an easy undertaking nor will it be a goal we’re able to realize quickly–which is why we need to start the conversation now.
Consistency = Usability = Productivity = Cost-Savings
Inconsistency is the enemy of UI design. When users were interacting with only one Cloud app per day, there wasn’t a problem. Today, users might work with several different Cloud apps on a regular basis. The lack of consistency among them can result in longer learning curves and errors. A more unified experience would boost productivity.
As Shawn Edmondson, VP of Product Strategy at rPath notes, UI standardization “reduces onboarding time for new applications, so you can get value out of applications quickly.” Even if a more familiar application usage experience reduced the need for training on a particular app from just three days to two, the cost-savings for a large company with hundreds of users could be significant.
Moreover, injecting a certain level of standardization will help reduce user mistakes and the need for technical support and detailed documentation, as users will more readily understand how to use the application.
The Evolution of a Cloud UI Standard
“Cloud apps” is an incredibly large field. A Cloud UI standard needs to accommodate a broad range of application functions and levels of complexity. An accounting system is vastly different and more complex than an email marketing system. As such, the goal isn’t so much to standardize the specifics as to standardize the general.
Consider any two Google apps, say, Google Calendar and the word processing application in Google Docs. They obviously serve very different functions. But when you look at them side-by-side, they look and feel surprisingly similar, and they do share some consistent UI elements. If you’ve mastered one, you can master the other much faster.
Note that Google takes an iterative approach to UI design, and it works well. Google has evolved each of their applications’ UIs gradually over time, and not all of their UIs evolve in lock-step. This is partly because they’re continually learning what works best, and partly because Web technologies are evolving in parallel, too, presenting Google with new UI capabilities all the time. A Cloud UI standard could evolve in a similar fashion–with lots of iteration and never quite “finished,” but with the end goal of reaching something pretty good across the board from a usability standpoint and relatively consistent across vendors.
We have another rough model for this: desktop computing environments. The earliest versions of Microsoft Windows and the Macintosh operating system shared only a handful of UI elements, like the concept of folders, double-clicking, and a garbage can/recycle bin. Over time, though, their UIs evolved significantly. Today, they still feel unique and yet similar. People who have never used a Mac but are familiar with Windows can still figure out the basics fairly quickly. That’s generally not the case today going from, say, Salesforce.com to Oracle Fusion Financials. But it could be, someday.
We Need a Tech Consortium to Make it Happen
The benefits of creating a standard are straightforward. However, formulating and moving to standards will be difficult–if not impossible–without support from major industry players.
Brian Sommer, Founder at Vital Analysis, believes that it can only happen if “a vendor with a huge SaaS presence publishes a great library of standards to move to anything like a set of UI principles.” When I asked who might be the ones to do that, Sommer mentioned Oracle, SAP and Salesforce as top candidates to rally the industry.
These are certainly the heavyweights that can influence standards in the enterprise world but it would seem that we could use a little help from the consumer world, as well. Companies like Google, Adobe and Apple deserve to have a seat at that table. With the industry recently coming together to collaborate around a set of standards for Cloud portability, I think it only makes sense that the user interface–and usability–be part of the standards discussion.
Again, achieving this won’t be easy and it will have be a gradual evolution that adapts to the innovation the Cloud affords. But that only means that it’s something worth thinking about and discussing today.
What are your thoughts on creating a set of standards? What do you think needs to happen in order to get there? Please leave a comment below.
A special thanks to Helmut Buchmasser of Folio Cloud for adding their thoughts to this article.