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The single pane of glass or the single glass of pain

Jehad Affoneh
Jehad Affoneh
4 min read
The single pane of glass or the single glass of pain

One of the biggest user experience and product strategy challenges in large companies is the proliferation of products and services that try to address the same needs.

There are many reasons why companies have so many products targeting similar personas with slightly different features and levels of quality. However, much of it can be attributed to the way companies set up their internal culture of collaboration. How you structure your company internally as well as how you decide which projects to fund are two key drivers that influence your product portfolio. This is especially true for companies that lack the product vision or the “strong personality” at the helm driving a single product strategy.

Most big companies go through some version of this. I can’t think of one large, multi-product company that does not have two or more products addressing the same or very similar personas and most likely in different ways.

Sometimes there is even a business strategy to the proliferation of like products within a company. Some companies believe that allowing multiple teams to build similar products generates healthy competition in which teams are aware they are replicating work, but aim to be the last one standing.

Building similar products within the same company has many issues. It causes confusion to internal teams and customers and depending on a company’s culture, it sometimes creates unhealthy competition with long lasting divisions between teams. Although it’s sometimes helpful to throw multiple bets at the wall and see what sticks, these bets end up taking a life of their own in many instances and customers end up carrying the burden of untangling the results of internal company politics. Walking back from this strategy to ship the product which solves a customer’s problem is usually difficult. In most cases, it also lacks the cohesive user experience strategy needed to ship an end to end experiences customers want instead of having to use.

After struggling with this for a while, companies start thinking about how to create seamless experiences that are enabled by the technologies different teams and business units have created but appear as if they were created by the same team. Most companies go through the “single pane of glass” phase.

It goes something like this. Someone somewhere in a meeting room says:

I know how to solve this. Let’s bring those solutions that were built by different teams (some of which did not talk to each other and some even hate working with each other) and bring them into one single suite of products and services. We’ll then create a single pane of glass (someone will most likely use the word “dashboard” here) and allow you to click through from one to the other. Then, we’ll invest in bringing some workflows between products. We need the single pane of glass because a single pane of glass is our silver bullet. We don’t need to re-think our workflows, we just need to add yet another layer of abstraction on top.

Single panes of glass rarely work. They almost never materialize the way they were imagined, and they almost never end up actually solving any of the problems they intend to solve. They end up providing a sales mechanism to bundle products and services but not a user experience that customers actually want between these products.

They focus on consistency instead of a cohesive well-thought through platform of products. You know why? Because they were not built or thought of as a cohesive set of products.

Single panes of glass are also painful and time consuming to build. They take bringing dozens of teams, using dozens of technologies, probably thinking of different users and user experience together under a mandate that they most of the time don’t believe in, to create the single experience to rule them all.

A customer the other day told us in a user research session that his fear is that most single panes of glass end up becoming the single glass of pain. What ends up shipping to customers are worse experiences with a lot of lipstick applied in an attempt to make it look cohesive, along with yet another dashboard to look at and manage.

Alright, what’s the solution then?

There isn’t a single pre-packaged solution to solve the problem of years of misalignment and the lack of a cohesive approach. What you really need is a well-thought through user experience strategy.

Think of a user experience strategy similar to how you think of the work engineering architects put into scaling applications. If you end up building the architecture of your application incrementally without thinking through the possibilities, you’ll probably end up writing and re-writing your application multiple times. Just like it’s typical for an engineering team to think of scale even as they build the foundational pieces of an application, you need to think of the “scale” of your user experience. Not all scale problems have the same exact solution, but all of them require a solid well-thought through architecture to stand on.

This requires you, as a leadership team, to believe in the importance of design, alongside engineering, product management, and other disciplines, to build a strategy that can bring a cohesive user experience to customers.

Cohesiveness and not just consistency is foundational to a successful strategy. Consistency means experiences could be consistently bad simply to meet some form of pre-defined standards. On the other hand, cohesiveness requires understanding the personas you’re trying to serve and the context they’re operating within to deliver the end to end experience or set of experiences they’d like to see.

A user experience strategy is also dependent on an engineering commitment to implement any needed architectural changes that are required to enable the end to end experiences customers expect. These changes are often painfully difficult and require using the same technologies to enable different experiences for different customers in different workflows. However, these are the types of decisions and investments that drive towards a cohesive experience for customers in the long run.

Shifting from delivering technologies to delivering experiences enabled by these technologies is a big culutral shift. I wish I had better news, but there is no silver bullet here, just a lot of experience-focued work.

Thanks to Varsha Jagdale and Salomé Mortazavi for inspiring parts of this and to Grace Noh for reading and editing a draft of it.