Like most people I always thought about the deployment of software as a technical exercise. Then I went to work for Pacific Edge Software in 1998 and I started to understand that deploying project management software was about more than just running setup.exe. I started to understand that it was at least as much art as science. The design of the deployment was less about the software and more about the users and the specific and unique (at least unique in the customer's mind) way they will use the software. My work with Project Server after leaving Pacific Edge has only confirmed this for me.
I recently found a reference to Donald Norman's new book Emotional Design and it puts even more weight behind the idea. In this book Norman examines the psychological attachment that users of products feel for them and how, to a certain extent, this 'feeling' for the product can be part of the design process of the product itself. He breaks total product design down into three parts: Visceral Design, Behavioral Design and Reflective Design. Visceral is the appearance of the product. Does the product look cool? Behavioral is the effectiveness of the product. Does the product actually DO what is expected of it? Then there is Reflective which is the personal satisfaction with the product. Does the product make you feel good. There is certainly more to Normans thoughts on these subjects but the above (grossly inadequate summary) is all you get for free from me. :-)
For sure this book focuses squarely on "real" products. It does mention products like websites but Norman spends much of his time dealing with real 'things', tangible stuff. But this does not mean that the ideas he puts forth in Emotional Design are not applicable in information systems like project management systems. Project Server for example can be broken down into these three areas of design. Some of the factors that fall into these three areas are under our control as consultants. Some of them are in the control of Microsoft.
How does it look? Is it visually appealing? When you look at it does it say something?
For the most part this is in the hands of Microsoft. Unless you want to go build your own UI for Project Web Access you get to use the one Microsoft gave us. For the most part the UI is pretty good. It has some things I would change for sure but all in all it's visual impact is a good one. Now there are things about the visual impact of the product that we as deployment consultants can have control over: The Portfolio Analyzer. These views don't come preconfigured. It is up to us to build those views. I have seen some very, very nice looking charts in the Portfolio Analyzer. I have also seen some that sent a shudder down my spine. Even if these views, after getting over their look, put forth good info it will hardly matter. As Norman discusses in his book. People don't like ugly things.
This is the meat. Does Project Server (or Product X) do what the user is expecting it to do? Here Microsoft holds many of the cards but not nearly as many as with the Visceral stuff. Microsoft wrote the code so much of what the product does is really up to that code. However, there is much in this area that depends on our skill as consultants and really as designers. The RBS and the Group and Category security design is all up to us. If we listen to the customer and design an RBS and security deployment that is sound then the user will be happy. If we do not it will not matter how well Microsoft's works the customer will not like the product because the users will not be able to see and work with the right data!
This is the part that I still have not wrapped my head around yet. Reflective design deals with how the product makes the user feel about themselves. This is something a little more complex than just designing nice Portfolio Analyzer views or building a good RBS structure. This is about how the product affects the way the user sees themselves for having used the product. My jury is still out on how we as consultants can deal with this aspect of design.
The long and the short is that it may be well worth your time to check out Norman's book. It may just make you a better consultant.