Keeping Up Appearances


Fashion can catch up with you without you even noticing it, until suddenly it’s nearly too late. I don’t mean skinny jeans, or leg warmers, or platform heels or first press extra virgin olive oil. Rather, I mean the way that software should look. What was modern and attractive five years ago looks worn and dated today.

Fashion creeps up on you gradually. At first there’s just a murmur, but as the years go by you hear it more and more – yuk, that’s not a very attractive interface! You ignore the criticism for a while, thinking that what software actually does is far more important than how it looks, but you’re foolish if you go on doing that for long. The problem is, of course, that it takes more than a few days to redesign and rewrite the surface layer of business software.

There’s also the issue of devices. We may still do most of our work on PCs or Macs but at times we’ll reach for our mobiles and tablets to do serious things there too. So interfaces must nowadays use responsive design techniques, so that a webpage will rearrange itself to suit the device it’s running on.

systems@work is a software author. We’ve developed a professional services management system – time@work , an expense management system – expense@work, and a forms workflow management systems – forms@work. All are different ways of configuring the same underlying systems@work software. It’s mostly browser-based software that runs on any browser with some configuration work managed through a back-office desktop tool.

We’ve been successful. The UK’s MPs use our software to record their Parliamentary expenses (we’re the solution not the ‘scandal’ that happened seven or so years ago). Consulting, IT, legal, pharmaceutical, financial, NGO and software development firms use our software all over the world. We have more than 40,000 end-users.

This is the browser Home Page that our current users use and love:


Yuk?! Well, not entirely. The options available to the user are clearly laid out in sections related to the functions of the system. Everything is more or less one click away. I hardly notice the interface when I do my timesheets, expenses and run my reports. And that, perhaps, has been the problem. I’m so used to it I haven’t noticed that by today’s standards it’s a bit dull and out of date.

I’m the software designer and I’m confessing that in this respect we’re not up to scratch because now that we’ve released Version 5, we’re working on a redesign, hoping to release Version 5.1 in about three months’ time.

We’re changing buttons, fonts, and other bits and pieces, but the big changes will come in the way the system can be navigated.  As well as adopting a more fashionable style, we’re going to ‘advertise’ the system’s options more noticeably and provide configurable shortcuts to diaries, skills databases, and reports. And instead of scattering notifications of things you’ve got to do across the page, we’ll list tasks, upcoming consulting allocations, and news in one easy to read ‘Today’ tab.

The Home Page is going to look more like this.


I think it’s better, but it’s work in progress, and I’m open to suggestions.


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