Better Software for Companies

”It is silly to work with devices that only irritate you. These include badly working software.”

Employees have to use more and more often software selected by the company, and their own work performance is dependent on them. For this reason, the functionality and usability of the software significantly affects the company’s performance.

According to many psychologists who have conducted research into working life, work has never been as demanding on the brain’s information processing capacity as it is now. Information expires quickly and technological applications are constantly updated. Adopting new information is difficult if the software in use do not work properly. The N4S Program strives to solve how companies would be able to obtain better software, and what kinds of new tools could be created for software developers.

Tommi Mikkonen

”Office employees need – and deserve – better software”, says Tommi Mikkonen.

The academic coordinator of the program, Tommi Mikkonen, wants to examine how the software used by industrial companies could be improved to become more user-friendly. Therefore the program develops new tools for analytics and systems that report bugs directly to the developers.

It took Mikkonen three months at the time to realise that you had to click on the globe icon in Mosaic browser. Since then, he has been hoping for better interaction between software developers and end users.

”It is silly to work with devices that only irritate you. These include badly working software.”

It is easy to collect data, but difficult to analyse it

Professor Tommi Mikkonen from the Department of Information Technology at the Tampere University of Technology has actively participated in developing open source code programming environments. One such has been the ambitious Lively Kernel community, developing a platform for web applications based on JavaScript. Mikkonen was involved in the development work for Sun’s Lively Kernel project, together with Dan Ingalls and Antero Taivalsaari. Ingalls is a pioneer in object-oriented programming, and Taivalsaari was the first to develop a Java platform for mobile phones. Based on the experiences in the project, Mikkonen is convinced that the web browser has changed more and more towards a programming environment.

”The idea has been to explore how agile the development of web software can be. The intention is to utilise the experiences from Lively Kernel in the N4S program. Nowadays, there are several similar projects, where the browser is an important executing environment. With their help, cooperation between users can be utilised, and the application can be transferred from one device to another for easy and effortless performance.”

According to Mikkonen, the N4S program builds strategic competitive edge for companies that use the software. The companies involved have different needs. What kinds of interfaces do the software developers need? Are there bottlenecks in the programming process? Are there some futile processes that delay the opening of the factory? How can customers best utilise the software properties? Are there such properties that have never been used or found?  

”Now everyone is collecting data and hoping that it will be useful. It is frustrating when you do not know whether something useful will come out of it. It is easy to collect data, but it is difficult to analyse it. Rovio and Supercell have realised this, and they know how to utilise the data they collect and receive customer feedback quickly. Adopting this idea in traditional big industry creates vast possibilities,” believes Mikkonen.

The aim is to have a comprehensive collection of different kinds of software for future employees.

”These include automatic testing tools and basic configurations, which help utilise the data generated via analytics software and also programming work in the development work. The data collection software are based on open source code, when the products can be tailored for the needs of different companies. At the same time, open source tools will be available to everyone. The aim is to create the best java analytics framework that would provide developers with similar information on using the application and its users as Google Analytics does in the online world.”


Customers need better software

According to Mikkonen, software used by professionals require immediate improvements. When all unnecessary properties have been left out of the software, productivity improves also outside the IT world.

”Poor software used by professionals leads, at worst, to employees not doing their travel invoices. Therefore good software design improves productivity in terms of those who use professional software,” Mikkonen believes.

As an example, Mikkonen mentions the CRM software used in companies.

Prof. Tommi Mikkonen, Tampere University of Technology and Dr. Janne Järvinen, F-Secure, talk about how the N4S Program works to create better software for companies

”If adding the new customer in the system requires 12 clicks, this takes an unreasonable amount of working hours, especially if there is a large number of people in the organisation performing the same work. When the work is done 500 times, the multiplier effects of wasted working hours are enormous.”

Poorly designed software can also work against its own purpose, as it is easy not to enter the new customer into the database.

”Everyone takes shortcuts and this drains the organisation’s knowledge”.

Mikkonen believes that the daily routine work should be quick and effortless. Therefore the software developer must understand how to enter customer information. If all the work is outsourced to the end user, software development ends and people become frustrated.

”Office employees need – and deserve – better software”, Mikkonen states.

More focused data analysis tools with the sprint model

Mikkonen believes that there should be more emphasis on testing.

”If an error is detected it should always be fixed quickly. The alternative is not enhancing training, which is what has traditionally been suggested.”

Web-based software also uses good analytics tools, such as above-mentioned Google Analytics. But with software for professional use that requires installation , these do not exist.

According to Mikkonen, the analytics functions are the first thing that the software needs.

”Analytics is cheap online, but in installed software such tools do not usually exist, and this is not good.”

In the N4S program, this challenge is met with universities collecting information and data from companies. This is analysed regularly using new tools, in the joint events organised four times per year.

When all unnecessary properties have been left out of the software, productivity improves and office workers have more time to relax.

”Universities build the first guess i.e. the first dataset. Every sprint then considers whether the dataset is sufficiently comprehensive, and it is expanded to the following sprint. Then this technical framework is completed with questionnaires, which comprise 15% of the entire research volume.”

The important part is knowing whether the software met the customer’s wishes and if the software development process was good.

”The studies collect information regarding the usefulness and usability of the software. The studies aim to find out whether the customer received sufficient information from the analysis. No one wants a fancy tool that they cannot use.”

Surprisingly, Mikkonen also asks whether the customer uses the software for the purpose that it was intended for.

”The software may have properties that have never been found and used!”


Cross-disciplinary research between universities, companies and students

The research conducted in the N4S program is extensive. There are eight universities and VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland involved in the program. Normal academic publications and theses are produced during the program, but in addition there are joint publications with companies.

”This expands the competence base and enables extensive cooperation beyond organisation borders also in the future. Joint publications will naturally be available to everyone after some time.”

There is also a large number of students involved. There are two student networks involved in the N4S program, Demola and Software Factory.

”By involving students in the research work, the possibilities of the program to invent something new are bigger than with the methods used in ordinary research.”

Demola has 2,000 students involved in 350 projects. The network established in Tampere in 2008 includes seven centres in addition to Tampere and Oulu in Finland, located in Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden, Hungary and Slovenia.

The first Software Factory was established at the University of Helsinki in 2010. The Software Factory concept is used in Finland also at the University of Joensuu and the University of Oulu, and in Bolzano, Italy and Madrid, Spain. The Software Factory is a cooperation environment where students, researchers and company representatives further develop applications and operational models of the client company. The projects utilise open source code operating system (Linux), applications, libraries and components.


Ari Turunen
June 2, 2014