Intuitive touch

Often seen as a luxury consultancies can ill afford in terms of time and money, the grey world of business systems software is being transformed. Emily Pacey discovers a new generation of management products that are not only simple to learn, but also promise an element of fun

Even design groups’ finance departments do not get sweaty-palmed with excitement about business systems software. But some of the more design industry-oriented providers are starting to tackle ’right-brained’ creative industries’ apathy towards management software, with bold claims that their new generation of products are either ’fun’ or take zero training time to learn.

’Traffic One is software as it should be – simple and fun to use,’ announced Sohnar development director Jeremy Rudge about the company’s new product at a Design Business Association project management seminar last month. Sohnar claims to have used ’a decade of knowledge’ harvested from its main Traffic product to inform the development of Traffic One. And certainly on initial inspection, the result seems to be a simpler system in which designers can drag and drop, rather than key in, details.

’Because creatives are all about the right brain, we have made Traffic One very visual and interactive and fun for them, and as little about typing as possible,’ says Sohnar managing director Tracey Shirtcliff.

’These systems are based on accounting packages, which are notoriously bad for user interface,’ says DBA development director Adam Fennelow. ’Some software companies have learned over the past ten years that to engage with designers they need to be far more intuitive, unlike most accounting packages.’

’Designers tend to think, “Write things? No, I draw,”’ adds Barry Watts of business system group Coefficient. Coefficient’s three-year-old product Periscope went through a major revamp last year to angle it at small design groups numbering just a handful of designers. ’We are nerds who are bad at drawing, so we make software that allows us to hang around with designers,’ says Watts, adding to the growing air of designer-focused empathy among certain software manufacturers.

Some software companies have learned that to engage with designers they need to be far more intuitive

Besides the expense of buying in a business software package, Fennelow says ’the stereotypical designer would be put off by the time involved in learning it. It is simply the wrong side of the brain for designers’. For small groups, time and money is often at a premium and business systems software is seen as an unnecessary expense, a luxury that they cannot afford either in terms of time or money. Training for systems is often quoted as a day for someone looking after accounts or in project management and about half an hour for a designer. Any time out of a busy day is an instant turn-off for a busy consultancy, and Coefficient has picked up on this feeling with Periscope.

’For most small groups, Periscope can be learned with no training. The ones who have had training have typically been bigger teams,’ claims Watts. As a small aside, however, he points out that one good reason for opting for training is that it means the software system trainer can play the ’bad guy’ instead of the creative director, insisting that staff fill in their timesheets, for example.

A criticism levelled at Periscope by some other software companies is that it requires no training because it lacks features. Watts argues, ’Sometimes these other systems are too complex, and there is actually a need for a smaller, very easy-to-use piece of software.’

Fennelow agrees. ’For small consultancies, the small guys come in very useful. Cheaper packages that allow designers to keep everything in virtual project bags, create a return on investment and are perfect stepping-stone products for a growing business – and even if you have to spend time learning it, sure, it won’t be the most fun-packed day, but if that one day can then save you a day a month of administration in the future, it is time well spent.’

Sohnar has even sought to integrate frivolity into Traffic One, which allows designers to put ’happy’ or ’unhappy’ ratings on jobs in the form of emoticons. This must be the first, but probably not the last, sign of humour or levity in the otherwise rather grey world of business software.

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