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This might sound like a crazy thing to say in the heyday of the app marketplace, but we need to eliminate applications from the computer user’s experience.

“Application” is a technical term that means “a piece of software” and traditionally belonged in the realm of IT departments. Its prevalence in mainstream culture indicates the triumph of computer terminology over more human language.

Story of computers: evolving to be more human

But the last 70 years tell the story of computers becoming more human, adapting to how real people operate. Early computers required their human users to speak in the language of the computer. Using punch cards to run computer programs? People were practically speaking in ones and zeros.

IBM 704 punch card computer

IBM 704 – an early computer requiring punch cards

The first personal computers, with their black screens and green text command lines still required people to speak in the language of computers. Typing in executable commands on a blank screen? Today that sounds like something only a software developer would do.

IBM 5150 computer,

The invention of “windows” and the graphical user interface (GUI) represented a huge step forward in humanizing computers. No longer were users stuck writing direct commands. Instead we monkey-like beings were able to open programs and interact with machines through visual “desktops” fashioned after our physical experiences.

Windows 1.0 | Used with permission from Microsoft

Windows 1.0 | Used with permission from Microsoft

The creation of the mouse gave our humble, clumsy race the opportunity to interact more physically with our technological creations. Modern touch screens have delivered the next big step forward, further humanizing the physical interaction with computers. However, the design of software, websites and intranets still has a long way to go.

Application-based interfaces are immature

The entry of “application” into our everyday nomenclature is a step in the wrong direction. The marketing slogan “there’s an app for that” taught average humans to speak the language of computers more effectively.

Yes, the iPhone and Android app marketplaces are part of a huge shift in technology that is transforming the world. But as Paul Miller, CEO of the Digital Workplace Group, so clearly explains, as a society we’re at a very immature stage in this new technological revolution. Our use of smart phones and computer applications today will eventually look like an infant’s rough play with a spoon before she learns its purpose and how to eat an ice cream sundae.

Intranets, applications and usability

To bring this pie-in-the-sky thinking back to the ground a bit, let’s take a quick look at intranet best practices.

Most intranets are designed poorly, with navigation that simply offers a bunch of content organized how the HR department has sorted its jumbled file share.

Conversely, the very best intranets are purpose built to help employees complete tasks – specific, common, concrete tasks. From start to finish the design of these intranets relies on user testing and usability-enhancing activities.

As web usability guru Gerry McGovern says, information is a task.

A typical best practice in the design of intranet terminology is to use words that indicate the tasks to be completed, rather than the applications used to complete those tasks. For example, instead of having a link on the homepage that reads “Oracle Internet Expense,” which is the official name of the application, better to write “Submit expense reports.”

This example epitomizes the “application versus task” battle behind intranet design. DWG’s intranet research and benchmarking database is full of other humanizing intranet usability tips.

Usability: Removing technology from the user experience

The entire field of usability and user experience design exists to answer the question “what do people need to do with this interface and how can we help them do it easily?”

Some people call well designed software “intuitive” because as much as possible it removes technology from the equation to create a human-oriented experience.

In the ultimate vision of the computer interface, I don’t have to think about which app to use, only what I want to do. This middle ground of technological “application” language that users today must navigate will recede into the past just as have punch cards, command lines and (eventually) computer mice.

Are large enterprises paying attention?

Large enterprises can learn a strong lesson from this coming change. They sit upon vast technical landscapes, with just one company offering hundreds of applications to thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousand of employees around the world on dozens of different types of devices.

Many of these companies struggle with and really fail to provide a good user experience for employees. Single sign-on is only the very beginning of the integration that large companies should strive for. Companies at the leading edge of digital workplace design don’t think about applications, but about users and their tasks.

A Fortune 500 or similar company should be asking “how do we create a seamless computing experience for our employees?” “How do we craft our intranet to help real human beings complete their jobs with great ease?” Those that aren’t will find themselves desperately behind the curve when the consumer computing industry finally arrives in the app-less near future.

Learn more about IBF benchmarking

About the author

Ephraim Freed, Communications Manager for the Digital Workplace Group (DWG)Ephraim Freed is a communicator and self-proclaimed “intranet nerd”.

Ephraim works at Riot Games now, but previously worked at DWG overseeing marketing, facilitating in-person & online member events and hosting our monthly webinar, Digital Workplace Live.

Prior to that, as a writer and professional services consultant for social intranet software company, ThoughtFarmer and managed internal communications and launched a social intranet at Oxfam America.

In his spare time Ephraim raises his two baby girls, goes trail running and plays many sports with great mediocrity.


  1. Hey Ephraim

    not so long ago I would have agreed full-heartedly: the idea of apps has to die, and “apply for vacation” trumps “leave-o-mat” (or “HR-ESS” for that matter) every time. But after working in the industry and the user experience space for a while now, my hunch now is that the answer is not that easy.

    Apps are one example for virtual things or products, bundles of information and capabilities that somehow make sense together. They are associated with a task, but that doesn’t mean that “cleaning surfaces” will replace “vacuum cleaner” any time soon. They are associated with a name – the brand identity of the app – and they take a place in the mental models of their users.

    There are other examples for virtual entities that make sense – think of Facebook being a virtual place where you go to meet friends, a place with a name and certain activities associated with it. So like many other design decisions, it depends on the context, and it might turn out that an app with a good name is the right way to go for some tasks, while in other cases it is the action or task itself that should take centre stage.


  2. Ephraim Freed

    Thanks for this thoughtful comment Milan.

    You make good points. Apps can bundle tasks and become digital “places” of sorts.

    But many people are accepting the proliferation and popularity of apps without a critical perspective. Is it good for employees to have a mobile app for searching the people directory? Yes. That would be great.

    But what if a company builds a different app for each task/set of tasks and ends up with 20 different apps (or many more)? Imagine two or more screens on your smart phone full of little icons for your company’s applications. That would get cumbersome and user-unfriendly.

    Apps are good at solving specific tasks, but having too many apps can confuse users, complicate the mobile computing experience, and hinder the supposed efficiency of mobile computing.

  3. Louise Hewitt

    Nice post, good comment Milan.

    The problem with huge intranets is that they are a bit like any evolutionary system – they don’t play by the rules.

    So yes, in an ideal world you would build and intranet with all the bits and pieces in place and nicely labelled, interactive services would play nice with the interface and content owners would provide metadata.

    But in reality Intranet UX is largely a sticking plaster affair for many organisations – spot the biggest ‘pain points’ and try to ease everyone (users and the org) around it.

    Milan – I agree with your point about ‘bundling’ and I think this is where an intranet can still have a strong role to play in a digital workplace. So the app might get built, and the brand/UI may be way off, but as an intranet manager you can provide a helpful editorial service by bringing together and explaining all these bothersome services and how to use them

    Ephriam – LOL – “But what if a company builds a different app for each task/set of tasks and ends up with 20 different apps (or many more)? Imagine two or more screens on your smart phone full of little icons for your company’s applications. That would get cumbersome and user-unfriendly.” – that’s what is happening and will inevitably continue. I guess I just put them in a folder on my smartphone homescreen that say ‘Work’. A big BIG issue for app developers in the Digital Workplace space is that there *is* competition on Bring-your-own devices for space, both visually and in terms of data and storage. UX for the digitial workplace should always consider these issues or, however pretty, the apps will become unusable.

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