Like so many internal auditors, my career started in internal audit with columnar paper and red/ green pencils as the basis of how to record my work. I took great pride in the neat and tidy appearance of my writing, page referencing and tickmark placement. Even twenty years ago, user interface mattered to me.
Fast forward a few years to the early days of automated work paper tools, and internal auditors like myself were looking for software that mimicked their paper world. We wanted to automate our manual workflows and prized function over esthetics. I was definitely an early adopter of these tools, and while these were all quirky, at least my hands stopped cramping.
After a few years in internal audit, I joined the other side, the product management side. In the early days, I was happy to build features and functions for TeamMate AM. We had a laundry list of enhancements from clients and a team of developers eager to meet the audit community’s requirements. New ideas on clever ways to design screen layouts were welcome, but we never got around to retrofitting older features to the new layouts. After all, as long as everything still works, - right? Enter my epiphany moment. We hired a user interface designer to help us reinvent our future with TeamMate+, our next generation audit management solution. He had radical notions like limited pattern sets for user interface design. He suggested user interface design reading and he was keen to try usability testing. Initially, I was concerned about limiting the creative freedom of teams to design and develop features. After all, can you really design a robust audit management solution with only thirteen interface patterns and a limited color palette? Turns out you can and you should.
With pattern-based design, users learn the application much faster and require less training. In fact, a new user with internal audit subject matter expertise only needs to be taught the patterns. They essentially teach themselves the software by completing the next task in the workflow, which follows such a predictable and intuitive pattern that no one needs to guess where that next action button might be hidden.
Speaking of hidden, allowing auditors to turn off unused activities in the application makes the interface cleaner and easier to follow. Different actions are taken by different users, so only seeing the information and actions pertinent to your job makes the application even easier to use.
Usability testing turns out to be incredibly valuable in user interface design. Watching users interact with the application taught us where some of the pitfalls were in our initial design. Small things, like the shape of a button to expand or collapse information, could make a huge difference to a user's understanding of what to do and how to accomplish the task. No instructions necessary, just a small design change. We also realized that users have other applications they use frequently, and the placement of menu items in a ribbon will influence where they expect to find the same or similar function in the application. Why fight instinct and routine?
Our user interface team has tripled in size, our product management team participates in usability testing, and it's all because we are now firm believers in the importance of good user interface design. Simplicity, usability, contextual awareness and a mantra of ‘less than 3 clicks’ are now a main stay of our design principles. We have seen the payoff internally with more rapid development, but more importantly, we are receiving positive reviews from our TeamMate+ pilot clients and early adopters. We are consistently hearing just how much simpler a more robust and configurable product can be when you put the emphasis on the user experience.
The benefits of this philosophy expand well beyond what we, as the product developers, experience. Audit professionals at all levels and audit departments, in general, reap innumerable benefits from working with a research driven, pattern-base designed software. Imagine, if you will, your most critical and common tasks being far more intuitive while at the same time taking a fraction of the number of clicks to execute. Consider what your organization would save in time and stress in a day, a week, or a year. Good user interface design is an opportunity to do better at a fundamental level, and the lack thereof is a risk of perpetual inefficiency.