Vasont Systems, supplier of content management systems to Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, and General Electric Healthcare, rolled out a new version of its flagship software earlier this month, with a drastically revamped user interface that aims to streamline common publishing tasks. Vasont version 11, released April 2, replaced version 10, which has been in use since November of 2005.
While the company's previous development efforts emphasized expanding the program's features, Suzanne Mescan, the company's VP of marketing says this time around Vasont focused on improving user experience by reorganizing and redesigning its interface. "We spent years adding power to the system and neglecting usability. It became evident that we really needed to clear things up," she says. "So this year we decided to focus on usability from an interface perspective, but also from a functionality perspective."
The objective in these user-interface changes is to make the software clearer and more accessible, while the functionality alterations attempt to expose already-existing features that were often overlooked in previous releases due to poor placement within Vasont, according to Mescan.
The visual changes are immediately apparent: Gone is the flat, gray, Windows 94-style aesthetic. In version 11 it has been replaced with a dynamic and uncluttered look that uses shading, a wider color palette, and more white space. "A lot of our users are technical writers who are very un-technical. They really struggled with a technical-looking interface," Mescan says. "It was kind of scary in some ways."
Vasont has also overhauled the program's content status icons as some of the existing images were confusing to users. Simple green checkmarks now represent content that has passed editorial muster instead of a boxy icon that resembled a "library or bank" to some, according to Mescan. "It was kind of a joke," she says. "Now it makes a lot more sense. We've definitely made a big improvement there."
Vasont's home view has been overhauled to better fit how people actually use the program. The view has been divided into several dynamic panes rather than a static row of buttons as in previous versions. In "My Workspaces," users can create, save, and recall Vasont window layouts. The "My Tasks" panel allows users to open and track multiple workflows. "My Collections" displays the eight most recent collections of content items a user has assembled and lets him or her save up to six favorites for permanent display. "My Queries" lets users create, save, and return to advanced content searches.
The new, personalized home view is aimed at increasing productivity by saving clicks. Mescan says that during usability testing with Symantec, GE Healthcare, and Hewlett-Packard in spring of 2006, Vasont learned that users were annoyed by having to browse through long lists of collections to find the one they wanted to work with.
The redesign was also undertaken with an eye to exposing previously underused features. "When we did usability testing we found a lot of clients weren't using the workflow feature," she says. "If you didn't remember it, you probably didn't look for it. Now it's right in the user's face."
Vasont 11 also offers tools to speed up the content browsing experience, see what changes have been made to specific content items, and depict how items are related to each other. When a user highlights a content item in Vasont 11's content browser, a new sidebar displays basic properties of the item and an excerpt. Users no longer have to fully select content to know what it is. A "Relationships" tab in the Details sidebar uses thumbnails to illustrate hierarchical relationships between highlighted content and other items. Vasont 11 also includes a revamped versioning system that will track all changes made to a content item and allow users to leave comments on each change.
Finally, Vasont 11 seeks to give users greater flexibility in how they manipulate content. Users will finally be able to drag and drop content between collections, a new normalization tool can search out non-standard spellings and capitalizations throughout collections, and Vasont can now track changes made to content items that are edited in Microsoft Word.
According to Mescan, Vasont came to appreciate the importance of thinking through the user experience during the new version's development process, which occupied the 30-employee company throughout much of 2006. This newfound appreciation has led to a more accessible, intuitive content management system, she says.
"Existing clients can expect to see a much more user friendly version," says Mescan. "Their job is going to become a lot easier because the software is going to give them a lot more help."