Keep improving Web software

When I logged in to my bank's online system to pay some bills last night, I was greeted with the following message: "Bill payment system upgrade completed."

Uh-oh. That's a message I don't want to see.

Thin-client software delivered through the Web can improve gradually and continuously, and that is one of its greatest virtues. When we could ship upgrades only once every year or two, we had no choice but to batch up the changes in ways that were guaranteed to disrupt the work habits of the people using our applications. But now we can trickle-feed those changes so that people can gradually adapt to them and we can more carefully monitor and adjust their experiences.

Unfortunately my bank's bill payment service provider doesn't operate that way. Along with a big-bang release of its back-end service, which added a variety of new features, it switched to an all-new Web interface. As a result, it took me a surprisingly long time to rediscover how to do the most basic thing -- namely, pay a bill.

Hint: The link that leads to the bill payment window should probably be labeled "Pay bill." Or, at the very least, that link's anchor title -- that is, the text that pops up when you hover over the link -- ought to say "Pay bill" rather than "Opens a new window."

It gets worse. The old system would queue up payments from multiple accounts in a single screen. The new system, with "simpler navigation that makes paying bills easier," won't let me do that. Now I have to make payments from my household account in one batch, and from my business account in another. The forklift upgrade didn't just temporarily disrupt my online banking experience, it permanently subtracted value from it.

As we're all painfully aware, many of the Web applications pasted onto legacy systems present badly designed interfaces. When you analyze what's wrong, it's tempting to catalog the design errors, relate them to well-known principles and commonsense best practices, and suggest point-by-point fixes. But there's also a systemic problem here. If you make a big-bang release, one that rolls up a bunch of new back-end features and delivers them in an all-new interface, you're asking for trouble.

Sometimes there's no alternative but to rebuild a system from the ground up, or to deliver a cluster of new features that, because they're heavily interdependent, can't be pushed incrementally. But that wasn't true in this case. There was no necessary connection among the various new features: showing available payment dates on a calendar, improving the mechanism for adding billers, providing payment confirmation numbers. Nor were these features necessarily bound to the drastically altered portal interface.

The central tenet of modern test-driven development is continuous improvement by steady accretion of small, incremental changes, with continuous evaluation of the effects of each change. This model should apply not only to the unit-testing of modules of code but also to the field-testing of aspects of user interaction.

Businesses born of the Web, such as Amazon and Google, have always known that it's now possible to evolve systems in this fluid way, and they've always made the most of the opportunity. Many businesses that predate the Web, though, still cling to anachronistic methods dictated by constraints that no longer apply. It's not a winning strategy.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection
Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jon Udell

Show Comments


James Cook University - Master of Data Science Online Course

Learn more >


Sansai 6-Outlet Power Board + 4-Port USB Charging Station

Learn more >



Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles


PCW Evaluation Team

Louise Coady

Brother MFC-L9570CDW Multifunction Printer

The printer was convenient, produced clear and vibrant images and was very easy to use

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?