Designing Software Development Tools
What does this mean?
If you don’t know, don’t feel bad. Some time ago I would not have known myself, but now it’s my vocation. SAP’s enterprise software helps businesses run their business, supporting sales, accounting, human resources, logistics and so forth. The tools are the software applications used to develop and administer this enterprise software. We often divide these tools into two groups: design time and runtime. Design time tools, such as code editors and modeling environments, are used to create the software. Runtime tools, like user provisioning and database administration, are used to manage the software. SAP makes tools that are used by SAP’s customers and partners, as well as by us, by the thousands of software developers and administrators at SAP.
I don’t think most user experience designers, imagining their dream job, think of enterprise software. It is even less likely that enterprise tools come to mind. Nevertheless, there is a dedicated group of designers at SAP working with enthusiasm and pride on the visual design and user experience of these tools.
Why is it interesting?
Intellectual and design challenges
This stuff is not easy. The projects and tasks that tools support are complex and highly specialized. It takes intellectual rigor during the research phase to comprehend what users are trying to do. Then interaction and visual design must give this complexity a suitable home on the screen. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, it must be as simple as possible but not simpler. These users are generally experts, and they will reject senselessly dumbed down tools. Achieving all this requires deeply thoughtful and creative design work.
Understanding software development
As a designer in an enterprise software company, you can sometimes feel like an oddball, a weirdo who does not understand what is going on. Or at least that is how I felt at times. Working on tools changed things for me by providing the opportunity to learn way more than I ever thought possible about what my development colleagues throughout SAP are doing, and by extension about software development in general.
Easy access to end users
During the user research phases, especially in enterprise projects, it can be hard to get in touch with the end users of the software you are designing. This is not a problem in tools design; we are surrounded by our end users and can easily do site visits, and organize focus groups, validation sessions and testing. This proximity also gives us the comparatively rare opportunity to easily involve the development teams, who are coding the tools, in user research. In some tools projects it is mandatory that the development teams use the tool they are working on, and thus there is a (sometimes overwhelming) stream of user input.
And why now?
More and more software is being created
As our world becomes increasingly digitized, software plays a bigger and bigger role in our lives. Once upon a time it was confined to computers, but now it is in all sorts of products and is used in all imaginable situations. This software must be created somehow. Why not with our tools?
Increasingly diverse people creating software
From a professional computer scientist to a geeky but cool hobbyist to someone’s grandmother with a blog, all sorts of people are creating and configuring software in one form or another. A semi-retired acquaintance programs an app to turn on his home heating from his smartphone, while a friend downloads and configures one of the many open source programs for homemade, remote-controlled drones. Schools teach programming basics through physical games in the classroom. Tools are moving from their niche to the masses.
Users’ expectations have increased
We have all used great software, and we have all used bad software. We have less and less tolerance for the latter and something better is usually just a click away. Developers are a typically thick-skinned bunch, but there are now great programming tools out there, and they know they should not have to put up with less.
A hidden opportunity
Tools were neglected in the past, and even now they do not always get the design attention they need. But because the focus is often elsewhere, there can be uncommon freedom and opportunity here. Tools design is a chance to green what was once a usability desert.