by Kevin Harrang*
Okay, pop quiz: what do these images have in common?
The answer is that they are all different versions of Microsoft Outlook that I use on a daily basis. Top to bottom, they are: Outlook on my home desktop PC, Outlook Web Access for my work account, Outlook.com for my home account, Outlook.com for the legal clinic I volunteer at, and Outlook for my Android tablet.
While I appreciate that some of these are different platforms (PC, Web, tablet), each of these has a distinct interface, and very different method of operation. And even on a single platform, the Web, there seem to be three versions, all completely different. No wonder, then, I frequently find myself trying to do an operation in one version that is only possible in one of the others.
My point is not that Microsoft should make these all the same (full disclosure, I spent 18 years working there), but it’s obvious that having many different ways of doing the same thing makes everything harder and less efficient. And infuriating, such as when the first five minutes of a recent support call I made was devoted to determining which Outlook I was using. My analogy is that even if my colleagues and I at work were all perfectly multilingual, I suspect we’d find it highly inefficient to communicate in a random assortment of languages, and we’d quickly agree on one language for convenience.
This is top of mind because at my new tech company, I try to take advantage of past lessons learned. And one of these is this: any improvement that leverages the way people already work is vastly superior to one that depends on getting people to adopt a new and different way of working.
This may seem obvious, but it’s a persistent problem, especially with technology.
When the Microsoft Outlook team encounters a new platform, of course they want to use the latest user interface conventions, and take advantage of new capabilities like touch. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t, only that taken together, doing so slows adoption – and it makes for a frustrating user experience. (If you’re tempted to point out that Apple figured this out decades ago, hang on for a minute.)
My point isn’t just about email, either. As everyone who’s ever worked in a company knows, knowledge workers need a collection of tools, and it’s not possible to solve the problem by purchasing everything from a single vendor such as Apple. But almost every new technology is pitched assuming you want to move from what you’re using now to something that, in theory at least, offers a better solution for your enterprise. Seldom mentioned is whether the product is better for how actual users function.
Examples of this abound. Chromebooks, based on the Google network computer model, are probably a good solution, assuming you’re moving digitally from pen and paper for the very first time.
This is especially true with professional workers for whom technology is not the focus of their work, but only a means to an end. Lawyers, for example, trained to be risk-averse and steeped in precedent, generally lack prowess when it comes to technology, and the cost of learning new systems is a deadweight loss to their productivity and bottom line.
One of my biggest professional mistakes was ignoring this point when I helped introduce a document management system to my fellow lawyers when I still was at Microsoft. Our consultants told us that our documents needed to be centrally stored and managed, which made total sense at the time. What didn’t make sense, it turned out, was expecting my colleagues to change the way they were used to working by taking the extra steps to manually upload and tag all their documents. Guess what? No one did it, rendering the whole point of a centralized DMS moot.
What we needed was technology that embraced rather than changed our work methods. It’s this principle that lead my co-founders and me to form MetaJure, to create the first fully automated document management system. Our design principles were: avoid creating any new work for the user, automatically capture 100% of the organization’s documents, and make retrieving documents as simple as a web search so users don’t have to learn anything new. In short, empower users while enabling them to work how they prefer.
Kevin Harrang is co-founder or MetaJure Inc and former Deputy General Counsel of Microsoft Corporation. Designed by lawyers for lawyers and staff, rather than by IT experts and back office specialists, MetaJure leverages automation to enable law firms and other companies to locate and retrieve stored documents from multiple devices with the same ease as conducting a Google search.