Image via howdesign.com

Connecting The Dots

How Data Can Drive Design & Development

Editor's note: This a guest post by Myplanet for the stae City As A Service publication.

We’re in the business of making things easier for people.

We build enterprise software solutions and we’re proud to be doing work that positively impacts hundreds of thousands of people every day. Simplifying and improving something as basic as logging into company software can have a profound impact on employee productivity and profitability, and that’s the least we can achieve.

Whether it’s consumer products or enterprise applications, we know that greater adoption comes from higher levels of usability. When done correctly, this leads to increased productivity. In essence: eliminate user friction and things get better.

So how do we achieve this?

  1. We devote ourselves to early-stage user research: It helps inform the design and development choices we make when we build solutions for our clients.
  2. We regularly user test: It validates, reinforces, or if necessary, radically shifts the direction we’re headed and ensures we build something that truly helps the people who use it every day.
  3. We turn to data.

It’s this last point that we want to talk about today: Data

Thanks to the growth in cloud computing and the resulting dramatic rise in options for IoT devices, we now have access to unprecedented amounts of data relating to what people are doing and how they’re doing it. Which means now — more than ever before — we have the opportunity to make things better.

Access to data, however, doesn’t guarantee improved experiences for people. In fact, in spite of this brave new era of information, we still regularly see new tools, new apps, and new software experiences that hinder more than they help.

Which leaves us asking: Why?

With so much information available, why are people still building frustration instead of delight? Why do systems remain archaic instead of modernizing? Why do so many solutions result in a series of new challenges when they should be easing the pain of the existing ones?

Image via callison.com

In an article for The Atlantic, James Kwak notes, “The underlying problem here is that most software is not very good. Writing good software is hard. There are thousands of opportunities to make mistakes.”

In fairness, updating the look or user-friendliness of something isn’t as easy as it seems. As noted by Fabricio Teixeira in his recent article: “The interfaces we design are often times connected to legacy back-end systems from government or medical entities, and promoting any change to just one of those legacy systems can easily become a 5-year project in itself.”

Especially when we look at systems that impact entire industries (airline software is the example du jour of an outdated system, but hospitals, governments and countless other examples can be found), the sheer scale of overhaul required can be more than resources like budget and time will allow.

But we live in an increasingly connected world, and we live in an increasingly data-driven world, and it is no accident that those two things are inextricably linked. The more connected people are to devices and to one-another, the more information can be extrapolated to inform how and why they are doing the things they do. We can’t afford not to update those systems, painful as the process may be.

That being said, data collection on the scale it exists today is only worthwhile if the information collected is accessible to those who need it and is put to use in scenarios where citizens can receive its benefit.

“The key is not just collecting data, it’s acting on it.” - Jason Cottrell, Founder & CEO, Myplanet

A big part of the problem is that we simply don’t have the ability or knowledge to harness the massive web of interconnectivity that is IoT… yet.

Daniel Conrad notes this in a recent article about the new era of connectivity:

“So now we can connect anything to the internet, but we’re not quite sure why we need to do that. To monitor temperature in the fridge? Improve physical security? Do smart-city-things? Track location of… everything? What will be the killer app for IoT that puts devices in every room of every home, every corner of every office, and maybe even in every piece of clothing we wear? The truth is, we just don’t know.”

Figuring out the correct application of these points of connectivity is the first stepping stone on the path to improving not just the digital and software experiences of people, but their lives on the whole.

A data plot of the overlap of cabs, trees and crime in San Francisco, to help visually understand connections among the three. Image via creativebloq.com

And once these devices are mass adopted, we’ll have an ever expanding wealth of information to draw from as we design, build and implement the systems that will impact thousands or possibly millions of people every day.

That may seem grandiose, but let’s imagine a very possible scenario:

As wearables become more popular — possibly reaching the ubiquity of cell phones — we’ll have an abundance of data from body sensors that track basic health information. Your wearable device could automatically upload that data to the cloud and give your doctor individualized insights into your health. But that information could also be collected and anonymized, giving public health systems information about public health. That data could offer real-time information about the spread of a disease and long-term projections for where spending should be focused for chronic, population impacting issues.

The same could be done with data from any number of sources: GPS data from cars and fitness trackers can provide stats on road usage, giving commuters real-time traffic updates, city planners information that would help plan for infrastructure repairs and transit teams the ability to direct their services in a more targeted, cost-effective way.

We’re not being hyperbolic when we say this data has the power to impact everything and change everyone’s lives.

All that information, however, has to be made available and accessible to the people that make those decisions. Up to this point, the information collected requires analytics specialists. Highly specialized tech and data teams are required to extract the relevant information.

Your doctor or city councillor is unlikely to be that kind of specialist.

“In an IoT world and empowered mobile society, it’s no longer just tech guys with data — it needs to get to city employees, hospital managers, planners and other folks who exist outside the realm of tech and need usable, easy access tools to make sense of all that’s available” — Jason Cottrell, Founder & CEO, Myplanet

Making the data useful isn’t just about asking the right questions or collecting the right information (though that is a huge part of it), it’s also about making the data user-friendly. Part of building enterprise software requires putting yourself in the shoes of someone else without your knowledge or background to guide them through the program or application you’re building. How would they interact with it? What would they want to get out of it? Where do they instinctively turn when they run into an issue?

And that’s how we need to start approaching data. How would your next door neighbour interpret this? What would make it easier for your cousin to embrace this much information? Why should your mechanic trust this new application?

When we get to the heart of those issues, we will begin to make real, tangible differences with data.

It’s an area of work that needs — and will continue to need — attention. As James Kwak notes, “The software that does the heavy lifting for the global economy isn’t the apps on your smartphone. It’s the huge, creaky applications that run Walmart’s supply chain or United’s reservation system or a Toyota production line.”

We’re looking forward to being the people that help make sense of all the data, that keep the software people use every day not just functioning, but functioning well, and that help usher in a new era of seamless, forward-thinking usability for everyone, driven by information and deep understanding.

Guest post for STAE written by Leigh Bryant, with portions from an interview with Myplanet CEO Jason Cottrell.

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