The Need for More Drag and Drop

The Need for More Drag and Drop

Pay heed to investors and marketers at your peril. New technologies need to be easier to use -- and more effective.

In his book, Does IT Matter?, Nicolas Carr writes that information technology no longer provides companies with a competitive advantage. "IT needs to become ordinary ... if it's to fulfill its potential," postulates Carr.

In most companies, what IT workers do is far from ordinary. The IT department's task list is long and filled with projects that cost too much, are overly complex, and may be unnecessarily expensive.

The economic boom of the '90s, the longest in history, was driven in large part by frenzied technology spending. Yet only half of corporate software purchased since 1998 is currently in use, reports AMR Research. This phenomenon, dubbed "shelfware," is the direct result of the complexity and integration challenges that haunt most software implementations.

What IT workers need, like everyone else, is more drag and drop: software so simple that it makes IT ordinary.

Since many jobs will be at risk, think of the consultants, engineers, and technicians whose roles would have to be "redefined." It's a move few companies have the stomach for. Yet this process of creative destruction presents one of the biggest business opportunities extant.

It won't be easy. I recently attended a panel discussion hosted by the CMO Council entitled "Defining Product Directions," which offered insights on how user feedback finds its way back into products. When I asked the panel why, after 25 years of continuous feedback, most hardware and software remains too hard to use, panel members offered some remarkable insights.

One CMO said venture capitalists are reluctant to invest in products that don't reflect their investment's "added value." In other words, "If it works too easily, where's all that engineering I'm paying for?" Another retold this scenario: As a sales engineer walks out the door one day, he turns around and says to the engineering staff, "Don't make it too easy, or I'll be out of a job."

Yes, you heard it from the horse's mouth: We can't make things easier, because our investors and sales people don't like it that way! These market vagaries conspire to constrain growth in technology innovation and ultimately the entire economy.

Which is why the recovery feels so tentative. The absence of the technology piston from our growth engine is causing a lot of sputtering. Early this month, Sony exited the U.S. PDA business because of a lack of software innovation to drive unit sales.

And while consumers enjoy relatively nice interfaces, they're largely a rehash of technology from the '70s. There's been precious little innovation since Xerox PARC's efforts ended up in Windows and the Macintosh. Oh yes, we have transparent windows and nicer-looking buttons, but the architecture is largely the same.

At the corporate level, the situation is even worse. There, complexity reigns supreme as consultants and engineers trip over each other with JavaScript, XML, Visual Basic, and other tawdry tools that make things very hard to do. Case in point, just pull down Word's Tools menu and mouse over to Macro and Visual Basic Editor. If you can figure that out, you're not an average human being.

How do we begin creative destruction? If you're a venture capitalist, invest in areas where a quantum leap in functionality is absolutely needed. It has to be possible for a CEO to push a few buttons to launch a CRM program. Nothing less will do. And, given the plethora of consumer devices that are set to invade the home, GUIs are also a safe bet.

If you are a leader, think about starting a project, product, service, or company that tackles those IT challenges. After all, where there's a problem, there's an opportunity.

And if you are a mere user, tell suppliers you won't stand for unnecessary features. We want solutions that are truly seamless and simple to deploy. And we need to address these issues pronto, because the party truly won't start without technology dancing.

Michael Tchong is founder of Trendscape. Additional information about Tchong -- and other innovation tools -- are available in Innovation Station, Fast Company's innovation resource center.