Next Step in the Evolution of Enterprise Computing Design

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The history, so far, of the evolution of enterprise computing is well known. Having started off with systems based on centralized mainframes or “minicomputers,” the PC revolution brought about a more democratized approach to IT systems. Still, the applications and the planning of them were more or less centralized, with systems and apps continuing to be designed primarily by IT shops with business needs front and center. These solutions have generally been siloed implementations and, given limited development resources and budgets, these solutions have proved difficult to upgrade to meet the continually evolving computing ecosystem. Of course, any consideration of user experience (UX) for these systems was, at best, an afterthought, so not only have these solutions been difficult to upgrade, but corporations have also been forced to invest significant resources in training their employees to use these outdated systems. Not a happy state of affairs, even for the largest of corporations.

The mobile and cloud revolutions have thrown even more stress into the system. With the widespread diffusion of smartphones and tablets in the consumer market, suddenly very attractive consumer devices were available in the market. The prescribed devices which IT had forced on their employees began to seem antiquated. Not only did these new devices provide a superior UX, but the high design standards these products represented flowed into the huge developer ecosystems which developed around these devices. Suddenly, every consumer who was also an employee wanted to use their personal devices at work as well. IT departments around the world have begun to throw up their hands at this state of affairs, leading to the well-publicized “bring your own device (BYOD)”phenomenon. Now the industry focus has shifted to how to ensure the security of corporate information on these devices.

The device side is not the only area to have seen widespread disruption. Servers used to be specialized computing devices carefully maintained and operated by corporate IT departments, but the continual improvement in PC based architectures and virtualization technology combined with the explosive growth of available bandwidth on the Internet has brought about the rise of “cloud computing.” With the appearance of such companies as Amazon Web Services and Rackspace, it is now exceedingly easy for most any sized organization to easily and cost-effectively get access to nearly limitless computing resources. Using these new cloud computing platforms, startups such as Dropbox have designed and developed easy to use systems for consumers to store and share data over the Internet. Of course, consumers who are also employees have found these solutions to be more attractive than the clunky systems fostered on them by their IT departments. So, IT departments now are faced with the potentially risky phenomena of employees bypassing their systems and sharing sensitive corporate data over untrusted systems in addition to devices.

Next Stop: Design

Given this state of affairs, it appears that enterprise application market is ripe for a new solution which can take advantage of the new computing and work environments of the 21st Century. While there is always room for new technology, given the already advanced nature of cloud computing platforms and client devices, it is not clear that the tasks most commonly used by the majority of knowledge workers, namely communications, collaboration, task management and document control, would drastically benefit from radically new technology. Here at Kabuto, a new cloud based enterprise communications and document control application; we would respectfully like to submit that what is needed is a new design paradigm.

Kabuto is certainly not the first cloud application to address this market. Already there are several excellent applications in the market combining the ease of cloud based file sharing and collaboration with the security and access control demanded by the enterprise. Still, one thing we have noticed is many of these are based on the tried and true desktop metaphor of folder based systems for managing documents and collaboration. This metaphor extends back at least to the early 1980s and has been extremely useful in the enterprise in the past. However, with a new computing environment increasingly dominated by tablets, smartphones and now notebooks using a touch screen based interface, we feel there is a need for a new design paradigm designed to provide an attractive UX on these devices as well as the legacy desktops.

Implementing a ”One Screen”Paradigm

One of the issues with the folder based paradigm is that the user is forced to navigate between a series constricted locations dedicated just to the content contained within. Maneuvering between these constrained locations within a touch interface can be confusing to the user. Also, in our opinion, it needlessly separates the user from a wide variety of rich information about other documents, users and communications which can be very useful to the task at hand. With Kabuto, we made a conscious decision to allow the user to navigate within a minimum of screen changes. As the user navigates around the screen and selects functionality, functions are designed to appear as windows in the applications, overlay screens or quite often in the case of small screen devices such as smartphones, new windows moved “in” to main application screen.

One immediate way this is apparent is in Kabuto’s initial welcome screen in the desktop/tablet version. The user is given a list of “workspaces” at the top of the screen which correspond with projects the user is involved with along with other collaborators. While this list can be hidden should the user wishes, it does give the user the ability to switch between projects within the same screen.  Each of these workspaces gives the user a view into who are the collaborators on that project, which documents are part of the collaboration, tasks associated with the documents and an “Activity Feed” conversation view inspired by the now well proven model of social media communications.  One design feature we think is particularly noteworthy is the task list associated with the documents exposed in the workspace can be accessed by toggling back and forth from the documents view. This allows the user to easily understand the tasks assigned to themselves and other members of the team.

The welcome screen also shows a list of documents the user is following and also shows activity around other documents such as documents gathering a large number of comments. To get more information about documents, a simple click will bring up an in-screen overlay with more information about the document. This in-screen overlay paradigm is used extensively throughout the desktop/tablet version of Kabuto. For the smartphone version, these in-screen overlays are replaced by windows which “swipe in” from off screen and can be easily navigated by the user swiping between views.

Another modality which Kabuto uses to allow multi-device use is a menu to manipulate a document is available either as a “right click” for Windows users or as an “info” button for Macintosh/touch screen devices users to click on. One of the options that can be selected is “preview” which brings up a document preview window as an overlay with the app.

There are a multitude of other features within Kabuto, but hopefully these examples will give you an idea of some of the approaches the Kabuto design team has been taking. The overall goal has been to create a design theme for the app which provides allowances for a collaboration experience which is equal between the emerging mobile devices as well as the legacy desktop devices to be found in today’s enterprise. With this approach we hope to have made a contribution towards the continuing modernization of the enterprise app industry.