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‘Legacy Experience’: A greater challenge than ‘Legacy Technology’ for Organizations

hands cupping stack of wooden blocks

Product development goes through various cycles from conceptualization, MVP, to final product and then, new modules get added to the existing ones, and keep making the product stronger in terms of features and functionalities. Mostly these initiatives are driven by financial and time-to-market considerations. But on their way to fulfill the market demands many a times what is not considered are the end user needs and actual context of use. And if this is not thought through from the beginning, it eventually makes the business applications even more cumbersome to use. In new application development, compromised end-user-needs would pose even bigger risks for them to become an application with ‘legacy experience’ right from the start of their product journey.

1. What is a ‘Legacy Experience’?

Gartner defines legacy application as “an information system that may be based on outdated technologies, but is critical to day-to-day operations. And that business application continues to support core business functions of an organization.” Few others consider applications as legacy when they are unable to meet the needs of a business and are difficult to maintain, support, improve, or integrate with the new systems.

The definition however doesn’t consider the mismatch of user expectations with such applications which is often referred as ‘Legacy Experience’. Though established applications face huge liability against changes in technological landscapes, there is evolution of user expectations taking place every 3 to 5 years as well. The applications that were built a decade back might have been built considering the market demand, interfaces and interactions then, which may not relate to the evolved user mental model. Now when users are exposed to advanced technologies and highly interactive applications daily, the viability of the decade old enterprise applications becomes questionable.

Companies often overlook evolving customer / user needs and focus on business goals, competitors and functionalities. There are products like Blackberry who used to have a strong hold on business users with the Blackberry Messenger, but they failed to update themselves when smartphones were fast taking over the market. User perception towards a mobile phone shifted from being a mode of communication to a resource for knowledge, entertainment and work. And Blackberry being just a phone for business communication use lost that market share to Android and Apple. So, products need to be constantly aware of their users to launch a new feature or to sustain in the market with the existing ones.

2. Applications with ‘Legacy Experience’ in Healthcare

Due to rapid adoption of technology, challenges faced in healthcare are widely evident where the impact can be much more as per research2guidance data that shows 46% mHealth publishers hardly have any active users. The changes are constant, highly accelerated, voluminous and driven by regulatory requirements, drug trials, varying patient health data and introduction of new procedures and care plans. Applications from different areas of healthcare need to comply with specific regulatory bodies. These healthcare regulations keep upgrading with the changing government or other innovations. For example, when policies like Obama Care were launched to give affordable preventive care or reducing hospital visits in USA, then all of healthcare service deliveries got affected.

In such cases, if an application has just been released it will have to go through the necessary changes to comply with the new regulations. Though the applications were aimed to solve a defined challenge, what goes for a toss are all the funds invested to design and develop them. Likewise, there are also regulatory bodies like CMS, ONC or NCDR that also define the design guidelines of specific applications. While they lay down the regulations having certain factors, their considerations on users tend to be lacking with the prescriptive regulations. The applications built while complying to such regulations get cumbersome for the end users. Six monthly or yearly updates to the regulations keep increasing the complexity of these applications.

Besides the aspect of regulatory changes, the technological advances are making users obsolete to use these applications effectively. Radiologists need training to guide them in achieving desired results when advance technologies like virtual reality get embedded into their applications for completing daily tasks. In such cases, the learning curve of using these applications not only affects the user’s efficiency but also the effectiveness of the application itself risking adoption. Even such advanced applications need to consider the user needs and context of use instead of having focus on the business objective only.

These factors demand enterprise applications/products to include the end user at all stages of product development. User feedback can facilitate a smooth and successful digital transformation so as to avoid going towards a ‘legacy experience’. And bridging of this gap can also enable providing of more efficient and effective healthcare services. So, to be able to raise an early flag for your business application, you can use the following test to understand the risks for your product to become a legacy with respect to user’s mental model.

In figure 1, you can rate your application against the following factors to check on how your application is doing in terms of users and usability guidelines (usability.gov)

table for rating usability factors

Figure 1: Usability Factors checklist for your application

While factors like time required to complete a task, error frequency and navigation issues define the user’s performance, on the other the learning curve and need for help and documentation define the user’s ability to complete the task in figure 1. Mismatch of user needs and user’s subjective dissatisfaction can be analyzed based on user interviews and overall feedback. So, if the table in figure 1 is more inclined towards High (4) or Very High (5) ratings for most of the factors then your application might be on the verge or has already become a legacy in terms of users and usability. The gravity of these factors on your application and the corresponding risks can help you decide the approach to be taken at different stages of design.

3. How User Centered Design can help mitigate risks for your application

The user centered design process outlines the different phases of the design and development life cycle, which focuses on gaining deep understanding about the user. It starts with understanding user context, business requirements and user goals for the product to be successful. Building from a rough concept to a complete design, evaluation through usability testing with end users is essential for quality software development.

3.1 Understanding user needs and capabilities

The requirement gathering stage is crucial for any product (tangible or intangible). User interviews along with stakeholder interviews help gather deeper insights around everyday challenges to match user expectations, especially for new product development. For existing products, techniques such as usability testing, cognitive walkthroughs and empathy mapping can have a positive impact on the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the application.

For example, in a value-based care setting the business requirement is to help users create rules (MIPS / MACRA, HEDIS®, PQRS, etc.) for segregation of big data, and the application is designed for manual creation of rules. But technical users may need to create hundreds of rules on a daily basis, making the application unusable. In this case, if user needs had been identified before designing the application, then the design could have a bulk upload feature wherein an excel sheet could be uploaded in one click. This would accelerate the completion of their daily task in the business application.

3.2 Transformation of Requirements into Design Directions

Once the user needs are established, the process of transforming them into design need to follow a systematic process. As seen in figure 2, making incremental updates to an existing design, revamping a design and building a new product are three ways to deal with a prioritized set of requirements. One needs to be aware that not all requirements demand for a design revamp or need a new application. Sometimes, incremental updates are sufficient to resolve most of the challenges / add more credibility to the product.

For example, Google are the creators of one of the best system designs and its widely used email service app, Gmail caters to over a billion active users. Even though Gmail is widely used, over the years identified challenges for users that didn’t have a significant impact on their core task of sending an email or even their user base. But when solutions to those challenges were implemented as incremental updates, it resulted in business users spending less time in email each day while adding more features to their experience. The features included – viewing emails with attachments in the list, using AI to enable quick responses to mails, integration of other applications, collapsible left navigation, personalized themes and enhancing the appeal of the most frequent action of ‘Compose’. Analyzing user needs enabled Google to make these incremental updates to Gmail and set them apart from other email service providers by being more efficient and user friendly. Consequently, user involvement throughout the design phase can help build better products.

With the framework below (figure 2), organizations can identify the kind of design decisions and approach required when facing challenges around product, stakeholders and technology to ensure efficient use of time, money and efforts and help improve the overall experience of a product.

table identifying key challenges

Figure 2: Key challenges and identifying kind of design approach required to solve them

3.2.1 Incremental Updates to Existing Design

If your challenges are a match to those listed under incremental updates section of figure2, then user needs and design requirements just demand for new features and updates to take the existing product to the next level. There are many legacy products with a wide user base, where user feedback is collected from different clients and the product is updated and personalized accordingly. Validating feedback and testing it with the end users is crucial to identify real user issues to ensure the updates made satisfy end user and business needs. Further, the design would undergo the process of wireframing, prototyping and testing again with users and stakeholders to achieve optimum solution.

Though incremental updates, one challenge is that the design should not get compromised with defined requirements, technology and budget constraints. Another challenge in these situations is that the same product gets implemented in silos for numerous users across clients. To avoid this, appropriate design documentation of user needs, user capabilities, scenarios and task flows in different versions is necessary. This sets a strong base for the product requirements to avoid heading towards making of a legacy product at least in terms of users and usability.

3.2.2 Design Revamp

In case of extensive challenges with the application as seen in figure 2, few updates won’t help in solving the key issues for the end users and might solve the market demands temporarily. In future it would only make application more cumbersome for the end users while the business starts reaching a stage of stagnancy. So, for the complete revamp where some crucial changes might already be known to stakeholders, but a vast application can benefit by starting with usability testing across different client locations across user groups. This would help identify the major issues and key tasks. Once identified the application can be redesigned in stages starting with the task flows that have maximum impact on efficiency and productivity.

Even after the redesign and improved usability across application, initially the users might take some time to adjust to the new task flows, layouts or visual styling. Users might again need some training in form of sessions or manuals or contextual help that would be provided in the design itself to get used to the new design and have a smooth transition over a time period. A lift-and-shift approach can also be used for legacy applications with complex workflows. All the tasks for the primary user can be designed in the new application almost similar to the old application while the old application can keep supporting some secondary tasks to have a smooth transition. Though design revamp seems to be a costly, time consuming and risky affair, it would all be justified with their long-term impact on business and productivity.

3.2.3 New Product Design

From figure 2, it may be feasible to build a completely new product or application to effectively manage current requirements and challenges. The design process would involve deep user research along with understanding the eco-system, domain and market. Once the user needs and business goals are established, wireframing, prototyping and testing with end users and key stakeholders would help iterate and evolve the design. Simultaneously, new technologies should be considered for development to satisfy the design and functionalities keeping in mind the scalability, security and connectivity aspect for future. Working on new products can be tricky considering it might even be a part of an existing line of products, and while keeping consistency in mind, the new business application will end up revolving along the same design challenges. Another challenge can come up with users being used to the existing design flows and information architectures used in the existing line of products. So previous learnings should be used in the right context to avoid building of new challenges and in turn a legacy application.

4.0 Conclusion

It is essential for product owners and stakeholders to pay equal attention to end user and business needs regardless of the lifespan of applications. Modernizing legacy applications not only helps businesses reduce IT spending and create a competitive advantage, but also enable end users to perform tasks efficiently. It may seem a costly, risky and difficult experience, but it will help organizations identify the problem caused by technology, architecture, or functionality of applications and implement relevant modernization approaches for improvement. This would assist product development (especially that involves UX) to intentionally avoid pitfalls that may lead to undesirable ‘legacy experiences’ in the future.


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