Why scalability isn’t always right
In 2004, Clay Shirky wrote a forward-thinking essay on what he called Situated Software; “software designed for a particular social situation or context”. He predicted that “the design center of a dozen users, so hard to serve in the past, may become normal practice… we’ll see a rise in these small-form applications”.
And he was right; the emergence of the smartphone, in particular, has given rise to a landscape in which whatever you need to do, there’s an app for that. But where we’re really seeing the value of small-form applications designed for their own specific social context is on intranets.
This month the winners of the 2011 Intranet Innovation Awards were announced. The UK’s Framestore firmly deserved their top billing Platinum award for their visual effects project management tool. It’s a custom-built workflow management tool, supporting the organisation’s core business by helping artists manage their visual effects projects. The in-house development team didn’t build the system itself – it’s a complex, third-party product – but rather they sought to, in their words, manage that complexity for their users and make it more closely meet their needs.
This is, to my mind, the holy grail of web projects; turning the difficult and complicated into a good user experience that precisely meets the needs of its user group. Each of the ten winners of the innovation awards managed precisely this feat, but in widely varying ways. Winning projects ranged from content which tells you it’s changed since you last looked to mobile sites which tell you when the next campus bus is due; each was designed with its own relatively small group of users in mind – not a generic set of users.
Like Shirky’s idea of situated software, this approach to intranet design does not embrace scale, generality or completeness as virtues; instead, the focus is on making a product which is designed for a specific group of people in a specific context performing a particular task or set of tasks.
And this is where so many intranet projects fall down. Analysts and managers fail to see the value in an application which benefits only a few hundred users performing a specific task. Instead, projects grow in scope until they’re attempting to meet the needs of myriad groups performing all manner of different tasks – and doing none of them well.
It’s argued that you need scale because web development is so expensive. Yet so much of that expense comes from the requirements of scale itself.
Design, development, testing and release becomes harder and more complex the larger a project is. If a project precisely meets the needs of 200 users, is it necessary to can it in favour of one which less precisely meets the needs of 2000? The former is cheaper and quicker to build, and will have a higher take-up by users.
This kind of thing doesn’t need to be personalised; it is personal to the group from its very inception. The bespoke nature of situated software – or intranet development – means it’s guaranteed not to work at the scale generic apps do, but for that same reason it can work in ways generic software can’t. Framestore’s animation workflow app isn’t going to scale – but it’s because it doesn’t scale that it meets the needs of its users so well.
The Framestore app, like almost all of the Intranet Innovation Award winners, was developed in-house. Designing for your own users and not generic users, development is grounded in the user community from the start. The result is form-fit tools which more precisely meet the needs of users.
It’s only by meeting user needs, delivering tools that work for your users, and for the way they work, in order to help them do their jobs better, that you can make your intranet work for your business.