Fast-growing Tuitive seeks to put unintuitive programmers in back seat of software, Web design

February 16, 2009

Call center software and e-commerce sites have made many an Indiana tech firm a name and a bundle. The downside is they often leave end users scratching their heads—or worse.

Jonathan Arnold sees big business in cleaning up the confusion caused by programmers, who often put features and functionality ahead of making their product intuitive to use.

Arnold's seven-person firm, Tuitive, is earning a name for itself by making Web sites, software and digital device interfaces more intuitive for the end users. Tuitive's pitch is that happier users will drive more sales for those companies.

Tuitive's approach is paying off for Crowe Horwath, a public accounting and consulting firm that just won a $1.3 million state contract. Crowe hired Tuitive as a subcontractor to help it win the Web portal contract with the Indiana Department of Education. The portal will allow teachers to create and manage lesson plans and curriculum in a new way.

The IDOE cited Crowe's "excellent effort around user interface design and human/computer interaction." Tuitive will analyze the ways teachers interact with computers to help Crowe develop the most user-friendly portal design.

"We don't want them to have to change their life to use the technology," said Arnold, whose firm is housed in a former IPS school at 338 S. Arlington Ave., in Irvington.

Arnold's firm has embraced the concept of "user-centered design," which has strong momentum on the coasts. The philosophy involves painstaking analysis, starting early in the design process, of how users will interact with technology. Even the mood of the user is anticipated.

"We give them a name. We give them a face. It's empathy," said Arnold, 36, an Anderson University graduate.

That's in contrast to the usual approach of rustling up the most technically proficient programmers, who often are narrowly focused on maximizing features or capabilities. That can leave a Web site cluttered with buttons, including many that are rarely clicked, that overwhelm the user.

"It's never weighted as to how it's going to be used," Arnold said. "Human beings don't tend to think in the same way as programmers."

He argues that poor design takes its toll in the business world, where needlessly tedious software can erode job satisfaction of workers who use it on a repetitive basis. That can contribute to higher job turnover and additional training and support costs.

Tuitive has lassoed a number of local contracts, including Bluefish Wireless, which provides wireless phone management services for 20 Fortune 100 companies. It made an e-commerce portal easier to use by eliminating some confusing features, said Joshua Garrett, IT director at Bluefish. "We were able to convert more eyeballs to purchases."

Tuitive's first big out-of-state job was for Flixter.com, a movie-centric social networking site.

The business is still small—still measured in how many walls it's had to knock out in the former school to accommodate growth. Sales are projected to approach $1 million this year from about $600,000 in 2008.

Arnold's niche business is the result of years of observation. In the 1990s, he worked for an Indianapolis insurance company, keeping its computers running and trying to prevent employees from dropping dead of despair from the software of the day. He soon created a Web site for the company.

In 1998, he formed his own Web design firm, Descom, the predecessor of Tuitive. Some hired him after they were well along in design, having already blown much of their budgets after running into problems.

"It led to some soul-searching on how technically [a site] was developed," he said.

About three years ago, Arnold became a full disciple of the user-centered design philosophy. He surrounded himself with like-minded believers such as Travis Smith, who majored in psychology in college. Smith was incredulous that the radio on his new Subaru had no obvious button to push for an iPod connection. He boiled down the procedures into a label and pasted it to the radio faceplate. While he was at it, Smith put new labels over other buttons, the way he thought Subaru should have done it to make things more understandable.

"It is only a real feature if it is a usable feature! I could probably make toast on the engine block, too, but Subaru does not advertise toaster functionality," Smith writes on the company's blog.

Arnold, meanwhile, is obsessed over a space heater.

To meetings with prospective clients he lugs a heater that would appear to be a gem of industrial design, with its buttons symmetrically arrayed. Go ahead, he asks—which one would you push to turn it on?

No, it's not the large button as one would think—that's the "turbo" heat button. The control panel was probably designed for the convenience of engineers and for manufacturing ease, he said.

"Why should we even need to read labels? Why should we have to think about it? One of my sayings is, 'Don't make me think.'"

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