What do you call a web application that is on its deathbed but not allowed to die? Despite it haunting everyone who uses it or works on it – the application continues to be resuscitated and re-launched?
It is sewn together erratically, brought to life by the sheer will of development teams, and kept alive by inertia. We use the term “Frankensteins” to describe these kinds of digital products.
Large, regulated companies are the most likely to harbor a Frankenstein. Resistance to change and scarcity of budget help Frankensteins to flourish. They thrive within complex bureaucracies that lack continuity between their online tools. Half measures and endless delays are the stiches that hold them together.
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Wait, do we have a Frankenstein?
You may if any of these phrases sound familiar:
“Our development team says they can’t change (insert random interface element) because its part of a third party application we don’t control.”
“Yes, we have brand guidelines and yes, there are 8 different action button styles on the site. We don’t really know why…it was designed before all of us started working here.”
“No one really understands why this (insert random functionality) does almost the same exact thing as that (insert random functionality) but we can’t get rid of either because different people use both.”
“Well you must have lots of windows open to complete this process.”
“We didn’t know where to put all of this new functionality so we made a dashboard screen where we could put all the links and some charts.”
“We get calls constantly about (insert random process/primary function) so we needed to make sure we have plenty of instructions, training and FAQs.”
“Yeah our brand was updated a couple of years ago but this is actually what our materials looked like 8 years ago.”
“We called that section miscellaneous because there were too many things in the ‘resources and tools’ section to put all of those PDF files in there.”
As time goes by, Frankensteins become meaner, more difficult to control, and less reliable. They become more costly to maintain and more difficult to work with.
Make no mistake about it. Your Frankenstein is also a nightmare for your users, whose expectations are growing. Their tolerance for frustrating web applications is waning—even complex online tools should be usable on first login, without training. And if your Frankenstein is the primary way you interface with your customers, they may look for other options.
At Crux Collaborative, we specialize in working to transform Frankenstein sites into modern digital tools.
How Did This Frankenstein Happen?
There are several factors in regulated environments that foster the creation of Frankenstein web applications, including:
- Failure to perform routine maintenance. Websites require ongoing investments of time and budget to keep the code secure and reliable. Without them, systems fall behind as the speed and efficiency of other technologies continues to march forward.
- Taking shortcuts. Expanding the functionality of complex systems properly is time consuming and expensive. There may be less expensive, faster, and “more efficient” ways to get the job done, but every time you take a shortcut there is a price you pay in the long run. Shortcuts can be thought of like the credit card of complex systems design; if you use them frequently or excessively, your long-term debts will eventually cost you much more.
Unraveling the Mess
First, Don’t Fear the Frankenstein
“It is so bad that there is no point testing it and besides, we already know what our users want.”
This is a statement we hear from people who are either in Frankenstein denial or have lost hope so much that they believe starting over is the only solution.
When we encounter a grotesque Frankenstein monster, our reaction is never to avoid its gaze. Rather, our approach is to do the opposite and shine a light directly on it.
When a baseline system exists, an initial usability study is the most efficient way for us to collectively establish the overall strategy for the project.
It simultaneously introduces us to the feature set, your users, their frustrations and pain points. It also, crucially, confirms for us the things that they love and will kill you if you change.
This work establishes the goals for the application and defines what will make it successful for the business after it is redesigned.
You might be surprised to learn that making modest user experience improvements to create more consistency or to align with best practices can save time and budget long-term. Sometimes eliminating antiquated functionality can make a big difference. Other times, understanding the most effective way to position the application’s functionality to mobile users increases satisfaction.
Next, Refocus on the Purpose
We have encountered Frankenstein applications that are so pieced together that the original purpose is no longer recognizable. More often, though, the reason the application exists has been overshadowed or forgotten.
We help our clients refocus on the business problem the application is trying to solve and where there might be gaps or redundancy within the organization. Often, we see large companies working in silos. There may be an opportunity to use functionality, features or a process another business unit is using to accomplish the same goals.
Frankensteins try to do too many things but in the end do none of them well – usually because so many compromises have been made in order to bolt on another part. Adding bells and whistles generally only complicates the core functionality of an application and decreases usability.
What does success look like?
“The bar is so low that anything we do will be a huge improvement.”
If you are saying this to your team then you run the risk of maintaining a more handsome Frankenstein.
A successful web application is an effective tool that can help streamline a business process and help end users get tasks done. Having a clear understanding of what success looks like after launch and beyond will help maintain the integrity of the design and user experience strategy. We help our clients define what business success looks but, more importantly, we collaborate to help define a clear strategy for future growth.
- How new functionality will be added
- Where there may be opportunities for the improvement and evolution of a business process
- Understanding what features and functionality will provide the most return on investment short and long term
- Understanding how user behavior changes as technology and platforms evolve
If you have a Frankenstein and need help taming your monster, talk to us. We’d love to share more about our approach and the importance of user research in designing complex, transactional user experiences.
By John Golden
John’s career in interactive media design began in 1995 and has spanned over two decades with a focus on developing simple, streamlined approaches for complex problems.View John's Bio