The curious case of the enterprise software design from the nineties that just would not die

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 11 December 2009

I had the chance a couple of weeks back to go to an morning seminar about intellectual property rights management. Following some similar recent demos I've seen at the Ecommerce Expo and at Online Information, I find myself still a little puzzled about the level of interaction and visual design that people are prepared to tolerate in enterprise software.

Take the rights software I saw for example. It did a great job, and was very clever about it. It allowed you to turn complex rights contracts into machine readable representations of the legal situation, and then apply them to your catalogue of media content. With a few queries you were able to establish, for example, that no, you couldn't sell series 1 of a particular show to a TV station in Belgium, because episode 2 used some music clips that were not cleared for that territory. Given that it apparently takes the BBC hundreds of man hours to clear any significant package of footage for the archive, this kind of technique could save media companies considerable time, especially when made available remotely for instantaneous use during negotiations at trade fairs.

The interface for the end user, though, looked like something from the days of Windows 3.x - all directory tree structures and immensely long drop-down menus. If someone had presented that to me as part of a web based product, I would have found it disappointing for an interaction prototype, let alone a finished product.

Recently Paul Scrivens posted a blog article called "Smashing Magazine killed the community". His argument was that list posts and linkbait had stifled debate in the web design field.

"It used to be so much better than this. Every article that you came across wasn’t a tutorial or list. Hell, the majority of them weren’t tutorials or lists. There were articles that actually talked about design. There were articles that made you think how you could become a better designer and encouraged intellectual discussion on design. Those articles still exist here and there, but they are drowned out by the copycats."

As ever, Paul makes some great points, but on the whole, I can't say that I agreee.

I think it is easy as an established practitioner to dismiss what is useful to someone entering the trade. It is easy to condemn lists of things as being 'old hat' and not cutting edge or funky enough because you recognise nearly every resource or technique on them, but people still need to learn the fundamentals. Personally, I think the kind of lists and showcases that Smashing Magazine and their ilk produce are useful to inspire those just starting out, or those at the fringes of web design. I frequently link to them here because I believe that they will be of interest to my audience, for whom web design techniques are not the 'be all and end all' of their day-to-day jobs.

And let us be careful what we wish for.

It seems to me that the sphere of enterprise software design could desperately do with linkbait-y list blogs of best practice designs and techniques, something that enterprise software development companies could aspire to.

Keep up to date on my new blog