Kuali Update: Create Well-Designed Software

By November 12, 2015 No Comments

Continuing the reflection on our progress over the last twelve months, I wanted to share a little about how we are bringing more advanced design thinking to the Kuali products.

Enterprise software, unfortunately, isn’t a place where you see much great design. Most enterprise product teams either don’t spend the time and thought needed to integrate wise design principles into their development process, or they mistake great design for fancy, animated icons and pictures. Just to be clear, I am talking about more than colors and font sizes. Great software design is about a human experience.

Great design simplifies and clarifies.

Since the company started, we’ve hired a cadre of full-time, world-class interaction designers. At least one is dedicated to each product, but they meet each day with our customers and with each other to collaborate on making sure that everything we do is thoughtfully crafted to enhance the user experience.


Great interaction design yields great aesthetics, and when it comes to users’ sense of the experience, aesthetics matter. This is the original lookup screen for our Financials product.

Changing the way this screen works could be disruptive to our customers and, therefore, it will take some time to change the actual functionality. But that doesn’t stop us from making it more aesthetically pleasing. Though we did add a clear, convenient navigation sidebar, we have left the basic functionality the same, making it much easier to look at by reducing visual elements that do not add to the meaning or understanding of the interface. A visually simplified design with good typography naturally results in improved aesthetics and allows the user to focus on the content and task at hand with fewer distractions. Even without making changes to the functionality, good design can greatly improve the user experience.

This screen from the original Conflict of Interest module in Kuali Research (formerly Kuali Coeus) allows a system administrator to create the questions an institution will use to ask faculty about their potential conflicts of interest.

While it got the job done, you can see that the interface is not very intuitive, lacking natural language cues or any obvious visual flow to guide users through the process. Using it would require training from another person already familiar with it. In this case, we needed to go beyond visual improvements and make the interaction, itself, more natural and direct.

In our user testing, we found that people didn’t want to use menus to set up a complicated hierarchy. Instead, they wanted to just drag and drop questions into the right order, as if they were written on index cards.

Users also wanted a better sense of where they were in the process. So, we broke it down into distinct steps and added big, easy-to-read text on the left hand side to orient the users, giving them more confidence in their progress and showing them how much more they have to do.

Finally, we gave a distinct visual treatment and placement to critical functions like save and cancel, labeling them clearly and putting them in their own column on the right side.

Interaction matters. And a vital component of interaction is performance. Here is a screen from the original Kuali Student project that gives the user the basic information about a course. Getting to this, and other screens in the app, could sometimes take seconds–some screens more than 10 seconds. To put that in perspective, remember that anything over 20 milliseconds can be perceived by the average user and experienced as lag or a delay.

When we began building Curriculum Management, the first new module of Kuali Student, our #1 design goal was performance. We wanted to make the product beautiful and intuitive, but we also wanted to make sure that the users could get around the app quickly.

This is the highly configurable course screen for the new Kuali Student Curriculum Management module. All of the fields on this form can be set by the institution. APIs are generated automatically upon configuration. And getting to this screen is wicked fast.

We care about design, and we’re doing the work to implement it in all our new projects and integrate it into the existing products. Community collaboration and feedback are critical in helping us create products that are designed around business processes, faculty, staff, and student needs. Here at Kuali Days in Austin, we have the Kuali Experience Center, a room where attendees can sit down with Kuali designers, see the latest features first-hand, and provide feedback that will help Kuali products make your work life better. Kuali designers have been presenting sessions and have been available throughout the conference to give the opportunity to help shape the Kuali user experience.

You’ll see more and more how much great design matters as you see more products, modules, and refactoring coming out of Kuali.

Author Joel Dehlin

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