Is the enterprise user experience overhyped?


You can’t get very far on the enterprise software circuit without some breathless talk about the ‘user experience’. Is the hype valid?

Guy with Tablet PCYou can’t get very far on the enterprise software circuit without some breathless talk about the ‘user experience’. We’ve even got the ‘UX’ initials for extra swag.

Nevermind my own view that the Facebook user experience is anything but great. The question remains: does the enterprise user need a consumer-grade level experience?

One thing we can agree on: for enterprise software vendors, the UX stakes are high. Workday got reams of press coverage due to their recent UI makeover (Flash out, HTML5 in was one highlight). Meantime, SAP’s forward UI platform, Fiori, sparked a massive comment thread on digonimica debating the merits of whether Fiori – also HTML5 based – should be ‘free’ to current customers.

Infor’s UI renewal also resulted in extensive media coverage in 2013. For Infor, the internal creative design agency Hook & Loop is a big piece of the puzzle, bringing outside-the-cubicle thinking to the enterprise UI. In September of 2013, Infor CEO Charles Phillips cited Infor’s UI innovations as a key competitive advantage in its go-to-market versus SAP and Oracle.

I have my own UX biases, which I like to smash against different views. I went digging and found some worthwhile perspectives, which I will share in a two part piece today and tomorrow.

Gartner on the do’s and don’ts of user experience design

Gartner’s Ray Valdes shared his views on user experience design in a September 2013 webinar, User Experience Design: from Web to Mobile to Social. Valdes presented two approaches to user experience design: intuitive and evidence-based.

Intuitive would be the bolder strokes of Apple’s Steve Jobs, anticipating what the user wants, sometimes before the user even realizes it. For intuitive design, internal design passion trumps customer research. Jobs famously quoted Henry Ford, who once said, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’

Evidence-based design is the backbone of A/B testing approaches, where different UXes are tested in the field and empircal data is gathered; user preferences are then adapted into the design (Valdes cites a Gmail example of evidence-based design, where color preferences in mail templates are tweaked based on user preferences).

As this slide illustrates, Valdes is not enthusiastic about the current state of enterprise UX design:


Source: Gartner webinar, User Experience Design

Valdes acknowledges there are design obstacles for enterprise customers, including skills shortages in both intuitive and evidence-based design. In particular, intuitive design rock stars can be elusive or come with a high price tag. But Valdes doesn’t want enterprises to view quality UX as an impossible mountain. He believes there is such a thing as ‘good enough’ in enterprise UX – if smart approaches are adopted.

To reinforce that, he presents a list of ten UX design pitfalls to avoid at all costs:

  1. Selecting Technology at Start of Project
  2. Fail to Get Baseline Measure of Current System
  3. Assuming That You Know What Users Want
  4. Think Design Is Only About Adding Features
  5. Forgetting That, All Else Equal, Speed Wins
  6. Failure to Test System in Actual Context of Use
  7. Failure to Iterate UX
  8. Lacking an Architecture of Participation
  9. Ignoring the Non-Visual Parts of the Design
  10. Viewing Political Compromises as Design

Of the ten, most of these struck me as smart but self-explanatory. However I was curious about #1 and why selecting tech at the beginning of the project was a no-no. Answer: Valdes rejects a design approach based on a vendor’s packaged offering in favor of a user-centric, iterative approach supported by adoption metrics.

The final caution, on politics, is a design mud pit. When Valdes brought it up, he reminded me of all-too-many web designs I’ve been a part of that were wrecked by ‘too many chefs’ with too many agendas. As for #5, speed is a design virtue that trumps almost all others in enterprise UX, with the possible exception of #4, adding too many features, which is actually a stern warning to fight for design simplicity.

Mobile ups the ante for simplicity and adoption

The emphasis on mobile design is no joke. DSAG, the German-speaking SAP user group, recently released survey data from their members on 2014 IT spending priorities. Mobile projects were full speed ahead, with a full 75 percent of respondents noting mobilization of business processes as an enterprise priority.

Unfortunately it’s dangerously easy to screw up an enterprise mobile app, with bugaboos like design simplicity and user adoption taking on even higher importance. Enter Google Enterprise’s end user experience principles, which could have been written for the mobile user:

It all starts with relevant results. Unless a search engine consistently delivers relevant results to queries, users won’t use it…Think about all the different things you do on – performing an image search, putting stock tickers into the Google search box, sending emails from Gmail and the list goes on. Now think back to the first time you used any of these products; did anyone explain to you how to use these tools? Chances are no, but you were still able to figure out how to use these products intuitively. The simplicity of – you just type in a few words, hit enter and back comes the information – inspires all of our product design at Google.

I’d argue the new Gmail compose screen even took simplicity too far, but that’s a problem most enterprise app users would love to run into. Firms that specialize in mobile user design, in particular tablet rollouts, warn that without strong user adoption, failures loom. Framehawk (part of Citrix), shares some hard lessons on iPad adoption from CTO Stephen Vilke:

From Stephen’s perspective, if security is king for tablets in the enterprise, then user experience is certainly next in line for the throne.  IT departments simply must deliver a strong user experience, says Stephen. If the (albeit brief) history of mobile has taught us anything, it’s that if people don’t like it, they won’t use it…This does not have to mean a full re-write for your legacy applications, but rather it is about researching how your audience interacts with applications on their current hardware (PC and laptop) and adding some iPadness to that application when you deliver it on a tablet.  Make it tablet-y!  No one wants a PC experience replicated exactly on a tablet.

The only thing I’d take issue with: sometimes a full rewrite is needed. At the least, the mobile screens in many standard processes must be drastically reduced and fields simplified.

Final thoughts on part one

We’ve validated that enterprise user experience has a relevance beyond the hype festival.  Field-tested design principles prove that with today’s know-how and resources, there is no excuse for putting out crummy apps. The virtues of simplicity, speed, and mobile thinking stand out. But we haven’t fully answered the question of whether consumer-grade-level UIs are necessary for the enterprise. And: we could use some practical examples of great UX. I’ll get to that in the concluding piece on Friday. Update: see part two: Does the enterprise really need a consumer grade UI?

Image credit: Guy with Tablet PC © lassedesignen –
Disclosure: SAP and Workday are diginomica premier partners.

    Comments are closed.

    1. greg_not_so says:

      fredverheul: Is the enterprise user experience overhyped? &lt;&lt; Good piece by jonerp .. to part 2″ < yes

    2. RickBullotta says:

      SAP_Jarret jonerp totally agree it matters a lot. the lost productivity and reduced application “uptake” from sh!tty UX is significant.

    3. ERP_cindyjutras says:

      SAP_Jarret jonerp Agree with Jarret. Need new ways of engaging with #ERP

    4. jonerp says:

      basachs thank you. Would LOVE it if you could add a comment on the data design part. Think I know what u mean but would be good to hear

    5. jonerp says:

      ERP_cindyjutras SAP_Jarret RickBullotta thx – I’ll take a more precise position on my own UX views in part two tomorrow

    6. Baruch Sachs says:

      It is rare to see an article on Enterprise UX and i am very happy to see this. 

      One critical piece that non one really talks about in the enterprise world is the data design constraint. For a consumer app? You could make it look almost as clean and concise as you want it. In the enterprise software world, people see that and say “I want that!” However, when you have critical business apps that through regulations, or disparate business groups require so much data on screen it becomes very difficult. Most enterprise business apps are data driven, mostly through business group mandates that “everything needs to be on the screen!” There is a huge amount of work and data analysis to be done by UX groups to sift through this data and identify which pieces actually need to be on screen so someone can do their job better. That effort is hardly done and if it is, even more rarely gets acted upon. Instead we hear ” We want our app to be like the App Store, or like Amazon, etc” The problem is that is not what the company does at all and to be like that requires a real hard look at your data model and the wherewithal to take a hard look at what does not need to be onscreen.

    7. vijayasankarv says:

      jonerpnewsfeed jonerp it is overhyped to the extent that people have started equating consumer grade UI to the desired state enterprise UX

    8. jonerp says:

      vijayasankarv I will get into that point in more detail in part two – agreed and thx. jonerpnewsfeed

    9. jonerp says:

      vijayasankarv also I don’t know if consumer-grade UI is very well defined. I could pick on the Facebook UX for example.

    10. vijayasankarv says:

      jonerp exactly – plus the fact that UX evolves over time . UI evolves almost every 2 years. People should get used to “good enough” IMO

    11. vijayasankarv says:

      jonerp after reading your second part, I will probably post a few thoughts as well. I have a big need to vent on this 🙂

    12. jonerp says:

      .vijayasankarv right and UI is a small part of UX. Just ask someone who is on a cruddy mobile connection.

    13. jonerp says:

      vijayasankarv cool that would be great. Part two goes up Friday then maybe you can kick the ball forward!

    14. jonerp says:

      basachs xcellent comment – will reply later

    15. says:

      Baruch Sachs thanks Baruch for this comment which adds an important element to the piece. I will try to pull this into the next part that goes up today. You’ve made a good case for why simplicity can be less simple in the enterprise but if data model work is part of what it takes to simplify a mobile process, then it has to (and should) be done.

    16. The question is not whether the enterprise needs a consumer-grade level user experience, but how can the enterprise can get software and hardware looking good and working well. The reason you can’t get very far on the enterprise software circuit without talking about the ‘user experience’ is that so many enterprises build applications so poorly and “just good enough.” The user experience and business research partnership is about how data, processes and metrics can enhance key enterprise operations. Working with a “UX” design centric approach, the designer pushes the engineering to perform for the user. The users experience is not compromised by engineering requirements, schedules, time and material budgets or quick production deadlines. UX takes an engineering commitment, and from my experience, many enterprise software applications take shortcuts to solving the hard problems. Enterprise is now learning to hire uber UX designers and take the time to build functional and beautiful CRM, data and business intelligence applications. When the user experience is validated with excellent UAT and high customer utilization, it puts these “experience companies” at the top of the enterprise pack.

    17. says:

      Steve Kearsley ​Thx – I missed your comment before but I think you have hit on most of the key points. Thanks for hitting on testing as well, user acceptance testing is vital. Though as I noted in part two of this piece, getting users involved should be a part of the overall UX design. Testing, yes – but design phase also.​