Easy and Other Lies

There are three key tasks that an interface must do well to achieve sufficient usability: Instruct, inform and enable.

No word in the computing industry is more abused than the word "easy."

Well, "performance" is a pretty battered concept as well, but along with closely related notions of "usability," "ease of use" and "user friendly," the idea of easy has been the industrys challenge and its curse ever since computing spread beyond the glass house in the early 1980s.

In preparing to speak at a forthcoming conference on usability, the Make IT Easy conference in Toronto in mid-May (www.ibm.com/easy), Ive been thinking about how the idea of usability can be approached productively in a nontraditional area, server software.

In contrast to desktop applications, server products are deployed in small numbers, are expensive to license and offer narrow but deep functionality. Most importantly, from the usability perspective, server software manufacturers assume that their products will be operated by IT high priests who are willing to attend vendor training classes and work with vendor consultants to achieve operational competency.

This combination of design requirements, inertia and economic disinclination for change has left server software far behind end-user software in the attention it gets from usability specialists.

These factors by no means excuse the industry from its laxity. Usability is fundamental to an organizations ability to be successful with and extract maximum value from its IT infrastructure. Usability is also a major factor in whether administrators make or avoid security configuration mistakes.

There are three key tasks that a server products interface must do well to achieve sufficient usability. It must instruct, inform and enable.

First, the instruct phase is very important during initial configuration but also later when an administrator needs to come back to an infrequently used task in an emergency, say when a motherboard fails, and quickly learn how to carry it out under pressure.