There but for the Grace of God….

Perhaps a software designer should rejoice at the discomfort of his or her rivals (we all enjoy the thrills of schadenfreude from time to time), but I couldn’t help feeling that ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ when I read this scathing account by Lucy Kellaway of her experience with Oracle’s iExpenses.

Doing Expenses is Truly Loathsome

She speaks for many when she writes:

There is something about doing expenses that has always been loathsome, even in the old days when all you had to do was fill in a few columns on a sheet of A4. There is the dispiriting matter of emptying pockets and handbags in search of missing receipts – as well as the existential uncertainty about what it is OK to claim for.

I remember seeing a survey saying that many office workers would rather scrub the company’s lavatories than do their expenses. I’d go further still. Not only would I rather scrub loos, I’d rather have a root canal.

Designing business software isn’t easy at all, and sometimes you strive with all the imagination you posses to design and build something that’s easy to use, and still end up creating a monster. Software designers are often people like me who’ve spent their careers programming software, or configuring other kinds of business software, generally for those forgiving kinds of people who work in accounting or other administrative departments. They’re nice people – and nerdy.

What we fear the most is ‘ordinary people’ or, worse still, ‘children’, who aren’t technical experts and rely on their instincts. They’re like the child who points out that the emperor had no clothes. And expenses software is the kind of software that ordinary people have to use.

But we must listen to ordinary people. If you’re a software designer you must let others help you with the graphical and logical design (what happens next when you click this or that button), and you must embrace that appalling moment when you put your software into the hands of someone who doesn’t know it at all, isn’t a software expert and isn’t someone predisposed to be kind to you, such a parent or a partner (perhaps your own children are the best candidates in this respect). You must watch what they do and force back the thought that they’re stupid or that it’s obvious what they ought to do. You have to be horribly humble, accept criticism and start again, if that’s what’s needed. It’s hard to bear.


I like to think that Lucy Kellaway would like our expense@work system more than she likes Oracle’s iExpense, and I’d welcome the opportunity to show it to her. But if you’re afraid of a journalist, think of the 650 MPs who use expense@work for their Parliamentary expenses in the UK. A more demanding and terrifying set of users you cannot imagine, but they seem to put up with it, more or less (well, they have to!).


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