Citigroup’s CIO Discovers That The User Interface Really Does Matter

Business software can be very difficult for users to use correctly
Business software can be very difficult for users to use correctly
Image Credit: Micah Elizabeth Scott

Most people with the CIO job view the applications that the company uses to run its business as being their responsibility. That responsibility translates into making sure that the latest version of the software is running, there are enough servers available to support the expected user load, and that enough storage has been allocated to allow the software to operate correctly. However, what a lot of CIOs don’t spend a lot of time thinking about is the graphical user interface (GUI) that a lot of these programs have. We just use what comes out of the box and are hesitant to spend money on changing the GUI because it’s not clear that there is a real return on that investment. However, perhaps we should be looking at our GUIs a little bit more closely…

What Went Wrong At Citigroup

What went wrong at Citigroup is actually pretty simple: they sent a great deal of money to the wrong person. When Citigroup sent almost US$900 million to lenders in error, it not only set off a legal fight over the money but unwittingly highlighted a separate issue in the back office that involved the person in the CIO position: the frequently clunky experience of using business software. The mistaken payment at Citi occurred as workers tried to send a nearly $8 million interest payment. They were using a financial software product called Flexcube, which is offered by a subsidiary of Oracle Corp. The reason that the mistake was made has been attributed to human error. As you might well imagine, Oracle is not taking this kind of criticism lightly. An Oracle spokeswoman has said financial institutions use Flexcube to safely and successfully make trillions of dollars in transactions every day.

In the ensuing legal action as Citi tried to recoup the money, the bank shared images from its software. What the screenshots showed were a user interface with dense type, low contrast and small buttons and boxes. It is the kind of design that would make CIOs at consumer-facing companies cringe, including banks offering brightly lit and easy-to-use apps to their checking, savings and credit-card customers. The key point that CIOs need to understand is that it hardly stands out in a business environment. While users look for best-in-class user experiences as consumers, they are often forced to reduce their expectations for those kinds of expectations at the office door.

That is partly because the people who choose business software for their companies are rarely considering the user experience. They will frequently pick the product with the most features or the lowest cost, without factoring in the end user at all and this explains why the software looks the way that it does. CIOs realize that it can be costly to change or update business software, and might require retraining employees.

The Heart Of The Problem

The Flexcube screenshot that have been shown as a part of the dispute reflects an older, customized version of its business software according to Oracle. The screenshots shown in court do not reflect the current user interface of Oracle’s corporate-lending systems. Additionally, there are also key differences between personal payments and corporate lending. These lending systems are built to be used by trained users who have to consider multiple complex scenarios and fields, and is not just a money transfer from one person to another. No two commercial loans are structured the same way, as they might be in consumer lending. It is hard to encapsulate software technology and processes around something that doesn’t look the same twice.

The good news for workers who may be squinting at dimly lit designs is that the consumer sector is putting pressure on businesses to provide better digital experiences for both clients and employees. They’re having an influx of users who are demanding easier, simpler, more modern experiences. However, while changing relatively obvious elements in the user interface can help, that may not always address deeper problems. Companies might need to analyze how long users are spending on certain forms or where they pause, for example, to understand which changes to make to their software.

Companies are beginning to invest in making products easier to use, but these efforts are still relatively nascent. They’re paying interest on the design debt. This is an area that’s going to see huge investment by CIOs over the next few years. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital practices in a great deal of business software. Technologies such as personalization and artificial intelligence, commonly used in consumer products, are starting to become capabilities that business-software users are asking for. After the overpayment snafu, Citi said it is in the process of making changes to its loan-operations platform.

What All Of This Means For You

CIOs are not only responsible for the installation and the maintenance of the applications that their firms use, but they are also responsible for making sure that the applications are being used correctly. Over at Citigroup they recently had a very costly software mistake happen that has the company scrambling to find out what went wrong. This problem is going to have to be fixed and it is the CIO who is going to have to fix it.

The mistake at Citi happened when workers made a mistake when using one of their applications and ended up sending $900M to the wrong people. The reason that the mistake was made was because the user interface for the application is hard to use. Consumer facing software generally has easy to use interfaces while back-office business software does not. This happens because when business software is purchased, its functionality and price that drive the buying decision. Oracle, who makes the software, says that Citi is using an older version of the software. Improvements in consumer software is slowly starting to work its way into business software. CIOs are prepared to make the investments needed to improve this part of the company.

CIOs have a lot of responsibility. They are not only responsible for getting the correct software for their firms, but also making sure that it is used correctly. When that software comes with hard-to-use user interfaces, they need to take action. Due to the importance of information technology, reducing the chances that errors can be made when using corporate software is just one more task that a modern CIO has to take care of.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

The person in the CIO job has the responsibility to find ways to use the importance of information technology to automate how the company performs its different tasks. However, one of the downsides of this push to automate more and more of the company’s daily activities is that it will result in worker’s jobs going away. In this era of low unemployment it can be difficult to get new workers to join the company to fill various jobs and so people who have already gone through the company’s hiring process are good candidates to fill other positions in the company. It is becoming the responsibility of the CIO to retrain workers who have been displaced by automation.