Valuing time and paying for simplicity by Chris Irwin, VP Sales, J2 Innovations.

Complexity has a cost, which is mostly hidden, but it often costs us time and hassle. Products with a complex user interface and difficult to learn are often used less than optimally, or in some cases by-passed or avoided altogether. This reality is especially true in the smart buildings market. A product or system that is designed to be easier to use will save time throughout its life but assessing the value of this is not so easy when making a buying decision. People tend to choose the cheaper option even though the associated energy or maintenance costs are higher.

When companies design products, especially software applications, it is often the technical team who are making design decisions that influence usability. Their familiarity with the purpose and features of the product mean that they may not appreciate how hard it might be for a new user to learn to use. In the case of software applications, some companies have sought to address by involving user interface designers in the process, to help ensure the resulting screen designs and workflow are intuitive for “newbies” and the workflow is easy to understand and follow. B2C business with millions of users have been adopting such an approach for years, but for B2B businesses with far fewer customers and less sophisticated design processes usability of products is still an issue.

Unfortunately, due to difficulties attributing cost to product use complexity, there is insufficient competitive pressure to drive companies to produce easier to use designs. Those who must configure the software learn to cope with the relative lack of user-friendliness, and end users must put up with higher training costs. This is true in the smart buildings market, which tends to focus on features; sometimes as a box ticking exercise to meet a consultant’s specification. Rarely is “ease of use” specified as an important criterion in the decision about which application to procure.

Those involved in decisions about new software must make usability an important factor in the evaluation process, as energy and maintenance costs are considered as part of a holistic lifecycle cost analysis approach. This can also be applied in our personal lives for several other buying decisions – considering only the feature list and the initial capital cost will probably cost us more in the long term.