Should Cloud Products Look Like Installed Apps?

Forrester have just published an interesting report looking at the cost impacts of using cloud based email services for enterprise customers. ReadWriteWeb has a nice precis of the report here. Unsurprisingly Forrester found that cloud based solutions are cheaper than their traditional brethren by an order of magnitude. The fact that this comes as a surprise to anyone is kind of a shock but as we all know, corporates take comfort in have an analysts reports verify what us in the great unwashed, the blogging minions, have been saying for years.

As is often the case, the ReadWriteWeb post highlighted an interesting point I’d like to look at. Forrester showed the following graph where IT departments were asked what delivery method they’re planning on using;

A later commenter added weight to this finding saying that in his company’s case;

Most users are accessing their email via Thunderbird or Outlook. The web interface isn’t very productive for high-volume email use.

Which begs some interesting questions about UI design for solutions targeted to enterprise customers – should they mimic their installed counterparts?

Recently I was alerted to the concept of the uncanny valley, a notion that begun with robotics but has been extended to software design. Bill Higgins espouses on the software aspects of the uncanny valley when he says that;

The problem is that our minds have a model of how humans should behave and the pseudo-humans, whether robotic or computer-generated images, don’t quite fit this model, producing a sense of unease – in other words, we know that something’s not right – even if we can’t precisely articulate what’s wrong.

There’s a lesson here for software designers, and one that I’ve talked about recently — we must ensure that we design our applications to remain consistent with the environment in which our software runs. In more concrete terms: a Windows application should look and feel like a Windows application, a Mac application should look and feel like a Mac application, and a web application should look and feel like a web application.

A coding horror post opines that it’s wrong to mimic desktop applications in a web app – that;

one of the great strengths of web applications is that they aren’t bound by the crusty old conventions of desktop applications. They’re free to do things differently — and hopefully better. Web applications should play to their strengths, instead of attempting to clone desktop applications.

There seems to be three distinct approaches to enterprise UI design for cloud delivered products;

Make it feel like a desktop app

This approach is one that attempts to reduce the culture shock of conversion by providing a UI that is wholly consistent with the existing on premises product. If you’re a proponent of the uncanny valley it’s an approach you’ll dismiss.

Damn the torpedoes

Also known as the Google approach – this takes the view that a change in delivery mechanism is a perfect opportunity to revisit the product UI. Move away from the norm, rethink workflow and reinvent the use case. Totally embraces the existence of the uncanny valley and steers away from it.

Let the user choose

Where it’s not about the way data is displayed but rather about the data itself – build everything sufficiently openly (or at least sufficiently customisable) to allow users to create their own personal interface.

I have to say I’m a strong proponent of the third approach – no UI developer can intuit the way an individual works. By definition individuals are just that, individual – give them the tools to create their workflow the way it works best for them.

Bringing it back to the original thread, enterprise email – it would seem that IMAP for Gmail was a masterstroke, allowing both offline access (an anomoly given that Google *could* enable offline access via gears) and total user freedom in terms of mail client – installed, mobile, web or a combination.

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Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. His business interests include a diverse range of industries from manufacturing to property to technology. As a technology commentator he has a broad presence both in the traditional media and extensively online. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

More about Ben here.