Friday, May 25, 2007

Musings about Sandy's Carter's new SOA book

From a user experience standpoint, I'm a "true believer" when it comes to SOA. I think SOA is exactly the right approach to make real world improvements in the amount of complexity that users need to consume in order to be productive. And I use those words very carefully, because I am of the school of thought that "complexity" is a zero-sum game. Those of us in user experience never eliminate complexity, we just move it around. SOA gives us an architecture to move around complexity in a more efficient manner, so that users can be productive in their particular job without needing to understand the complexity of the entire ecosystem.

So when I picked up Sandy Carter's new book, "The New Language of Business: SOA & Web 2.0", I was interested to see if she would touch on this perspective. Clearly, SOA is a vast topic that can be tackled from many different angles, so there was no guarantee that user experience would be touched at all.

Naturally, given her background, Sandy focuses on the business side of the SOA equation. She hammers home the points that being flexible and responsive requires an alignment of business needs and IT needs, and neither can do the job by themselves. In addition, she makes it clear that this is nothing new... from Henry Ford to McDonald's, flexibility, responsiveness, and efficiency have always been of major concern to enterprises. What has changed now is the tools available to take this to the next level, such as standards-based technology to make interoperability an assumption rather than a herculean effort. In particular, I enjoyed the case studies that described how real companies were adopting and benefiting from SOA approaches (including IBM). The one thing that stood out in these case studies was their diversity. Every company approached SOA differently, based on their business needs, their IT skills and architecture, and their process maturity. This is yet another reason why I appreciate SOA (and IBM in general) -- we don't try to claim that there are one-size-fits-all solutions to any of the problems facing enterprise customers today. And Sandy clearly did not try to make SOA appear easier than it really is.

But what about user experience? I'm happy to say that the book touched on user experience topics in several places, though it wasn't a major theme. When it was mentioned, she tended to focus on the user experience of the end user, rather than the implementers. Again, this is not surprising given that the focus of the book is about the business justification for going to a SOA architecture, and clearly one of those benefits is to allow customers to create a more seamless experience for their end users. For example, here's an excerpt from one of the case studies:

Standard Life group of companies Plc, headquartered in Edinburgh in the U.K., has become one of the world's leading financial services companies. The majority of Standard Life group of companies' business and revenue is generated through independent financial advisors (IFAs) that help their customers select financial and insurance products from a number of different assurance companies. many IFAs utilize industry-sponsored portals to obtain product information, compare prices from multiple providers, and provide a single view of a customer's holdings.

Standard Life group of companies realized that, to remain competitive, it needed to offer its IFAs easier, more flexible, and quicker online access to its financial information. Standard Life group of companies also needed to reduce the cost of doing business with multiple business channels. By reducing its costs, not only could it improve its bottom line, but it also could improve its competitive standing and its relationships with its IFAs; more self-service and quicker processes via automation could help the IFAs improve their margins.

This is a message repeated in several places throughout the book - that SOA techniques can allow our customers to provide a better user experience for their customers. But I would also add that SOA can provide a better user experience for IBM's middleware customers as well, namely because it will allow them to pick and choose who in their organization is capable of handling the most complexity, and architecting their solutions accordingly.