Bending the Front End

No, we aren’t talking about the fate of your fender in heavy traffic.

We mean the “front end” of a software application – the “view” it gives you of the information that’s relevant, as well as the ability to add, change, or otherwise interact with that information.

The front end was known formerly as the “user interface.”  Today, software designers put more thought into improving the interaction of humans and applications than they used to, and “user experience” or “UX” – which is what the front end of an application really provides – has become a design field unto itself.

The best kind of front end is the kind that is “transparent”, that seems to disappear.  The view it gives is so natural, the interactions so smooth and easy, that you are never conscious of “reckoning with a user interface.”  That kind of user experience reflects skill and creative inspiration on the part of UX designers, and  there are some very good front ends out there.

But the fact is that you need software to perform a lot of different jobs.  How many applications, with how many varieties of user experience (however transparent and natural), are you going to invest in?

The business data already exists, and you need to manage it as well as the processes that depend on it.

Spreadsheet applications have an astonishing property – you can use a spreadsheet to bend your own front end to business data.

A spreadsheet offers an immediate (“transparent”) view of the data contained in the cells.  Cells can contain many different kinds of data, and have their own intelligent formatting for ease of use (think drop-downs).  They can contain links to underlying data, documents, other spreadsheets…

Interaction with data using the spreadsheet is “natural”, in the sense that people have become as used to navigating the rows and columns of a spreadsheet as they are used to navigating the arrangement of a QWERTY keyboard.  

You have two dimensions to work with in organizing data.  This is surprisingly powerful, and the reasons for it warrant another post or two.

Have you bent a spreadsheet to serve some other purpose?  Send us your stories. Use the comment box below, or send an email to us at editors<removethis>@bentsoftware.com and follow us on twitter.com/bentsoftware

Making it Smarter

Once you decide to bend software to accomplish your goal, it’s natural to ask what else this “already bent” tool might offer you to make the job easier.

In the task coordination example of the last two posts, we imagined that you used the drop-down widget provide by the spreadsheet to standardize the status values for individual tasks — Not Started, In Progress, Complete.

Under the surface of the spreadsheet application, of course, there’s a vast number of features and capabilities that may, in a similar way, turn out to be “bendable”.

Let’s say the inevitable happens the very first time you use this bent spreadsheet for a website rollout — the target go-live date is missed.

You look at the spreadsheet and see the problem.  You see, from the completion dates people filled in, that many of the tasks were put off for too long.

So the next time around, you add a deadline column:

speadsheet-team-deadline

 

Something else occurs to you.  This bent process spreadsheet is meant to be reusable.  Generally the tasks and the people involved won’t change, but it will be a pain to keep filling in deadlines in the date column.

The solution occurs to you.  Spreadsheets have formulas.  You can use a formula to calculate the deadline for ea ch task based on the number of days before go-live that the task should be completed.  When you reuse the spreadsheet, all you need to do is update it with the new go-live date, and the deadlines are recalculated.  (See the formula shown in the screenshot above.)

In the next post, we’ll consider exactly why spreadsheet tools like Excel or Sheets are so commonly “bent”.

Have you bent a spreadsheet to serve some other purpose?  Send us your stories. Use the comment box below, or send an email to us at editors<removethis>@bentsoftware.com and follow us on twitter.com/bentsoftware

Task Coordination (part 2)

The previous post showed a spreadsheet “bent” to the purpose of coordinating a number of people performing a set of related tasks (rolling out a revision to the corporate website).

Bending software has clear and obvious advantages – that’s why it’s done all the time.

The spreadsheet application is something people know.  You are not presenting them with an alien interface to another new tool for coordinating website rollouts, or task flows in general.

On the assumption that everyone is already using Google apps for information sharing, this bending of the spreadsheet adds precisely zero overhead in terms of a learning curve for the people involved.

Of course this “spreadsheet” is not really a spreadsheet.  This use of Google Sheets has nothing to do with accounting, financial calculation, or even the organization of inherently tabular data.  What you’ve done is commandeer the simplicity of the 2-D grid to list a set of tasks in rough temporal order (rows) along with status information for each (columns), in such a way that those assigned to a task can quickly see what they are responsible for.

The result is an extremely simple view of the process that does not need to be explained to anyone.  Nor does co-editing need to be explained to those who already co-edit documents using Google apps.  People see, they understand, they know what to do.  Again: no overhead — no additional time spent on something other than getting the job done.

The factors that lead to “bending” in this case, as in many others, are:

  • The inherent flexibility of “bendable” software like spreadsheets and collaboration platforms like Google apps
  • The fact that people already know these tools, which makes their “bent” use intelligible without explanation.

Have you bent a spreadsheet to serve some other purpose?  Send us your stories. Use the comment box below, or send an email to us at editors<removethis>@bentsoftware.com and follow us on twitter.com/bentsoftware

In upcoming posts, we’ll continue to explore the advantages and downsides of bending software, and look at some more examples of bending – and unbending – software.

 

Task Coordination

Here’s an example of “bent software.”

spreadsheet team coordiation

Rolling out revisions to your company website involves a number of steps that have to be performed by individuals across several departments.   Some steps are compositional, some are technical; some involve the approval of content by legal or marketing officers.

Your task is to coordinate the pieces and the people.  Perhaps after winging it once or twice, or perhaps even before you wing it, you realize: “We really need a process for this.”

You might already know that this coordination affair is a simple instance of what is known as business process management or BPM..  Large companies spend hundreds of thousands – sometimes even millions – of dollars on BPM platforms that let them design task flows, create input forms, and integrate business processes with databases and other applications.  Employees log into the BPM system and do much their work inside of that framework.  The BPM platform is like an amoeba that swallows up corporate operations.  It comes with documentation hundreds of pages long, and requires employees to complete a training course in order to use the system.

Ugh.

Of course that sort of thing is out of the question here.  BPM systems like that belong to a different, heavier world of software. Sometimes it’s called the world of  “enterprise software”… though this begs the question of what software for enterprises should really be like.  

In any case, such a heavy solution isn’t needed here.  All you want to do is reduce this set of tasks to something unified that can be tracked, so that your company doesn’t fall victim to mistakes that could easily have been avoided.

How do you proceed?  You decide to bend a spreadsheet to do your will.

The “spreadsheet”  lists each essential step of the process and who is assigned to it, along with the present status of each task and the date that gets filled in when it is completed.

Your company uses Google Sheets for collaboration (or Microsoft Excel online), so it is a simple matter to whip this up in a spreadsheet.  Since the spreadsheet is shared, the people involved can update the status and completion dates themselves, and you can check the spreadsheet periodically to monitor the process as a whole.

When the website needs its next revision, you simply modify and reuse the spreadsheet.

It may be crude, but it’s simple and easy, and it seems like it will work.

Introducing Bent Software

Has this ever happened to you?   In the course of business, you realize you have a need for some kind of mechanism for organizing information for a particular purpose, assigning roles to team members, coordinating tasks, visualizing and tracking relationships with donors or vendors, and in all cases, maintaining a ongoing record of pertinent information.

You realize there is no application, no tool in your toolbox designed to meet this need.  And yet, this problem needs to be solved.

Your company or organization is replete with software applications of various kinds.  Are you going to invest in another one?  Finding it, learning about, paying for it, persuading your staff to use it?  You realize the answer to that is a resounding No.

Instead, something occurs to you.  You grab a familiar tool out of the box, say a common spreadsheet application, and you “bend” the tool – like the spoon and the fork above – to fit a problem it wasn’t quite designed for.  (By the way, thanks to Benedict Evans for the “bending” metaphor in his podcast on “Engineering a Revolution at Work”.)

You can do this, because an application like Excel or Google Sheets is flexible, just like the spoon and the fork.  And because this is a commonly used application with a familiar look and feel, not only you, but everyone else will understand how you’ve “bent” it to serve an unusual purpose.

It’s not ideal, but it works.  Business can go on.  Even though you’re not a software engineer, you just made a software application do something new, by “bending” it.  And you’ve done it without increasing complexity and overhead for your people.

You may not realize it, but you just did something powerful. “Bending” software is power.

But here’s the question: Is the practice of bending software a symptom of something deeper – a gap between the typical state of software for businesses and the real day to day life of a business?

If this has happened to you, this Bent Software Blog is for you.  Here you will read stories of software “bent” in order to solve problems, and also stories of “unbending” – new concepts in software that fit how people work, and solve problems without getting in the way.

If you have a story of your own to tell, let us know.  Use the comment box below, or send an email to us at editors<removethis>@bentsoftware.com and follow us on twitter.com/bentsoftware

Together, perhaps, our many individual experiences may shed some light on the next generation of business software that fits the life of real business.