Simplicity In Design: A Metadata Imperative

Published in July 2006

Every year or so, I get on my soap box about the absolute horrid state of usability in the metadata repository space. The last time I took this stand, the hate mail came poring in about how “our”
product was different. I suppose it’s easier to deny there is a problem than to actually fix the issue. I do understand that technology products are built for technologists and most
implementations do not include a large number of business users. Why are metadata products built with a focus on functionality (complexity) versus usability (simplicity), because that’s where the
money is! As Willie Sutton the bank robber said when asked why he robbed banks, ‘because that’s where the money is’.

The reason I am back on this issue is that I had the opportunity to view a showcase of a leading vendor. Incidentally, this vendor was one of those that laid a claim of usability the last time we
had this conversation. Now, keep in mind this wasn’t a vendor demo where life is perfect: perfect users, perfects data, and the perfect application. As the host was introducing himself, I glanced
at the screen which presented the opening page of his metadata repository. Oh what a mess of icons, confusing words, and lack of any direction. As a user, I passed my eyes around the screen trying
to determine what I was looking at. There were plenty of buttons to push, lots of links, and navigation options everywhere. The most amusing part was that the host, on several occasions, got lost
in the demo and had to retrace his steps. Don’t get me wrong the data and functionality were great and for those of us that understood XML schemas and data mappings the amount of effort was clear.
Yet, once again getting that data back out and usable presented a challenge.

Do consumer products define success by the complexity rule? What about the IPod? The IPod has a simple interface that does one thing exceptionally well; play music. The IPod is more expensive and
has less features that most MP3 players but who cares? Those trademark white earphones are everywhere. The Google interface isn’t overloaded with ads or links; just a search box. The interface
simplicity hides the complexity of the network, search algorithm and infrastructure. The key is to hide the complexity behind an interface of simplicity.

One of my favorites products based on simplicity is the Zip Lock bag. I take these with me on every trip to hold my tooth brush, my electronic equipment, and my wet clothes in case a last minute
pool swim is required by the kids. The Xbox is another really simple system; plug in the CD and start playing. Within 20 minutes, your seven year old will be kicking your tail around dead man’s
curve. My final favorite is the number two pencil; yes I still have a pencil sharpener on my desk. Nothing like that grade school feel where mistakes were welcome and you needed eraser caps in the
shape of your favorite cartoon character. Corporations are too much like golf pencils, no eraser and no mistakes allowed. Compare these products with the Microsoft Windows operating system with 40
million lines of code or any Christmas Toy that needs to be assembled before sun rise. Not to mention the #$%&* TV Remote Control (All four of them or is it five). I know these remotes talk to
each other and reconfigure themselves on the fly just to irritate me. Only the Mrs. seems to know the secret of getting the electronics to work on demand at the Stephens house.

Perhaps, Albert Einstein said it best “Make things as simple as possible but no simpler”. Major Dan Ward of the United States Air Force has written extensively on the simplicity cycle. Figure 1
presents his model where ideas are generated (R1) and move along an incline where both complexity and goodness is measured.

Figure 1: The Simplicity Cycle

In the world of metadata, goodness can be defined as the usability, value-add, or contribution to the business. The metrics of content and usage can be used to support this goodness rating. As the
requirements come in and functionality is added to the product both the goodness and complexity rise.

At some point in time, the apex (R2) is reached where adding additional complexity actually reduces the goodness and reverses course to the point of uselessness (R3). Along the route R2-R3 lies the
vast majority of metadata applications. Eric Rayond explains the process of moving toward simplicity (R4): “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add but when there is nothing
more to take away”.

When you reach that tipping point or apex (R2), how can you ensure you take the simplistic path versus the complex path? First, let’s make the point that simplicity does not mean lack of
complexity or that the environment isn’t complex. Our world has enormous challenges that we are still only beginning to understand. The metadata environment touches every aspect of information
technology, architecture, and governance. Bob Zurek is Director of Advanced Technologies with IBM Information Integration Solutions has declared 2006 as the year of metadata. Mr. Zurek continues
“Large enterprises are moving forward aggressively with building teams who will ensure that their companies have developed a metadata strategy, put their efforts into practice and then prove out
the business value of this strategy”. While there are no set rules on what it takes to ensure your metadata application doesn’t fall into the valley of complexity, here are three areas to watch.

The Customer Rules

At the end of the day, the customer will tell you what they think about your metadata application. While they may not verbally come out, their online behavior will speak load and clear. On one
occasion, we were reviewing the end-user metrics and we noticed something odd. If we removed the technology community from the metrics and only focused on the business user community then something
strange happened. Only about 10% of the time did the business user venture into the physical definitions. More telling, the average length of time the business user spent on the logical definition
versus the physical was 5 times as long. Clearly, the business user was telling us what they thought of the physical definitions.

Usability and Context

In many cases, waiting on the metrics to tell you what customers want is too late. Why not ask them up front? How long do you set aside for usability studies? Do you tell the vendor that the
purchase of the application hinders on a successful usability study of 10 users with various experience levels? A usability study tests the effectiveness of the application to deliver the content
and context it promises by assessing user interaction. These usability evaluations can be key indicators of success and failure in the future. Makes you wonder why so few usability studies are
conducted since the only cost to you is a couple of hours and maybe lunch. Have you ever wondered why so many organizations build their own metadata repository collection? We don’t build our own
office applications, our own collaborative applications, or our own email system.

Ensure Value-Add

The repository must create value. Metadata repositories are part of a much larger ecosystem where the success or failure may very well depend on the entire system. The ecosystem consists of a loose
network of suppliers, customers, support organization, outsourcing firms, vendors, technology partners, and a host of other organizations. Adding value requires that you contribute to the bottom
line success by lowering costs, increasing efficiencies, and enabling the automation of business processes. One of the major reasons for failure is the lack of long term adaptation strategy. No one
really knows where metadata is going and where metadata is going to add value. Only the business can really dictate that, so long term value-add must be planned and executed.


Where do we go from here? Are metadata products destined to be complex and sold based on the level of functionality versus the level of utility? Is any vendor going to step up and offer two views:
the technical community and the business community? Does usability and design really have that big of an impact?

Several years ago we were approached with a problem within the architecture. The architecture community set standards in place for specific products such as desktop computers, printers, or
software. However, the business users still went out and purchased what ever they wanted or needed at the time. The given reason was that the process was too damn hard to buy anything through IT;
the forms were unreadable, processes were too complex, poor data quality, contacts were not kept up to date, and options were limited. The solution was to build a user friendly, familiar interface,
and easy to use application for online ordering. The ordering system housed the standards and procurement was a breeze. Not to mention the end-to-end integration into the back end systems. Want to
guess what happened to the non-standard purchases? Still don’t have the Return on Investment from your metadata implementation? As the saying goes; addition (complexity) is the work of fools while
subtraction (Simplicity) is the work of genius.


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About R. Todd Stephens

Dr. Todd Stephens is the Technical Director of the Collaboration and Online Services for the AT&T Corporation. Todd has served as the technical director since 1999 and is responsible for setting the corporate strategy and architecture for the development and implementation of the Enterprise Metadata Repositories (knowledge stores), Online Ordering for internal procurement, and the integration of Web 2.0 technologies utilizing SharePoint. For the past 24 years, Todd has worked in the Information Technology field including leadership positions at BellSouth, Coca-Cola, Georgia-Pacific and Cingular Wireless. 

Todd holds degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science from Columbus State University, an MBA degree from Georgia State University, and a Ph.D. in Information Systems from Nova Southeastern University. The majority of his research is focused on Metadata Reuse, Repository Design, Enabling Trust within the Internet, Usability and Repository Frameworks. In addition, Todd has co-authored various books on Service Oriented Architectures, Open Source, Virtual Environments, and Integrating Web 2.0 technologies.

Todd can be reached at