User-centric IT: Marketing blather or are these guys on to something?

Advocates championing a user-first approach to delivering IT services include Box, GoodData, and Okta

User-centric IT, a term used by a multitude of technology companies and enterprises these days, might sound like another trendy marketing ploy. But its advocates insist the concept is really about a fundamental transformation in how businesses deliver IT services.

Proponents of the practice, in which users' needs come first in systems implementations, gathered to champion the idea in San Francisco late last week. CEOs from companies including Box, GoodData, and Zendesk hopped on the user-centric IT soapbox at the event, with executives from companies such as Clorox also in attendance.

Backers cite five principles underlying user-centric IT: serving the business by empowering people; adapting to how people work, not the other way around; people, information, and knowledge connecting in real time; mobility as a "work-style" preference; and security being inherent to the user experience.

User-centric IT is a different way of thinking, said Ralph Loura, CIO at Clorox. "Most of the history of IT was started in the data center -- servers, storage, and apps -- and then tried to find their way to the user." 

But the user-centric model operates in reverse."You start with thinking about the user, about usability," Loura said. Instead of presenting CRM or ERP systems that users end up not wanting to use, for example, designers would factor in ease-of-use first in the development process and later consider issues such as scale, security, and cost. "It's a lot easer if you start at the user and work back," he said.

A user-centric approach would also be more personable, according to one example presented by Shelton Waggener, senior vice president at Internet2, a nonprofit computer organization promoting innovation in the digital realm. "We need to stop publishing error messages that say, 'Access denied,'" Waggener said. Instead, information should be provided such as "You need access to this. Here's the policy," he said.

Seven partners are collaborating in the User-Centric IT initiative, including three cloud computing companies listed in the Andreessen Horowitz venture capital investment portfolio: Box, GoodData, and Okta. They have set up their own User-Centric IT website, which among other things emphasizes that people choose employment at companies that let them work the way they want.

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