Kevin Tolly: Manufacturers too rushed to see reality of ease-of-use issues

With many network products – from network interface cards to switches and beyond – becoming commodities, the ease with which they can be set up and maintained looms ever larger as an important factor in the “total cost of ownership” equation.

Manufacturers know this and many address the issue – or think they do. Each year, hundreds of products roll through the labs at The Tolly Group, and far too many are just plain hard to use.

“Ease of use” cannot be evaluated in as easy and straightforward a manner as, say, packet forwarding. Many vendors apparently take the quasi-subjective nature of the issue to mean they simply can put forth unsubstantiated claims about the ease with which their products can be used.

A few years back, when graphical user interfaces began to supplant MS-DOS/Telnet command-line interfaces, the vendor community convinced customers that by definition GUIs made their products easy to use. It wasn’t the case then, and it isn’t the case now.

More than once, our engineers have retreated to using Telnet to configure a device because the browser interface made no sense at all.

More commonly, we’ve needed to abandon the browser because, via that interface, one cannot configure functions like switch quality of service. (Ask your vendor: “Can I configure 100 per cent of your product’s function via the browser interface?”)

So, what are the causes of this “dis-ease of use”?

Simple: Vendors don’t concentrate on improving ease of use because they have convinced themselves that their products are already really easy to use.

I know this because, as part of testing projects, vendors proud of their product’s “ease” often ask us to include an informal evaluation so that we can sing the praises of the product in our report. Our honest feedback takes them by surprise.

All too often, vendors are simply in a hurry to get their products out the door. Some apparently don’t even spend five minutes making sure that the documentation and the installation CD are in sync.

In one recent evaluation, the installation hit a dead end on the first page when the vendor instructed the user to click on a menu option that simply did not exist. Trying all of the options on the menu eventually allowed us to “reconnect” with the documentation but this kind of glaring error, easily fixed, simply should not happen. Where was the quality assurance on this?

More often, though, we have the technological equivalent of the old adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” The developers of these products truly believe that these products are easy to use because for them they are easy to use. A product’s developers – and their frequent-user colleagues – are the worst people to evaluate ease of use objectively.

Staffing pressures will not go away. Ease of use will continue to be a significant total cost of ownership factor. It is time that vendors realistically assess their approach to human-factor issues.

Tolly is chairman and CEO of The Tolly Group. He may be reached at