Does the enterprise really need a consumer grade UI?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 14, 2014
In part two of my enterprise UX piece, I share expert views on enterprise UX and then give you my take.

Phone and spring landscape
Editor's note: This article won the ERP Focus 2014 ERP Writers Award for best ERP article of the year.

When I bailed out on - err, I mean finished - part one of the enterprise UX piece, I didn't get to my own position on whether the enterprise needs a consumer-grade UI.

I did make some progress in the first piece (Is the enterprise user experience overhyped?), mostly by establishing that enterprise UX has become a defining advantage (or disadvantage) for software vendors. For customers, mobile initiatives are raising the stakes and forcing the user experience issue - otherwise adoption will lag and mobile deployments will either fail or fall short of glowing expectations.

But there are some problems gnawing at me. I put my nagging UX questions to Ray Wang and Holger Mueller of Constellation Research. (To ensure a quality UX, I handled the questions via Gmail). Wang has been pushing UX before it was particularly fashionable to do so; Mueller spends a great deal of time in the HCM space where UX is a mandatory discussion.

Three burning enterprise UX questions and answers

1. Is enterprise UX as important as hyped? Wang's view? Yes: 'UX is crucial as it drives adoption, enables productivity, and helps reinforce brand experience. It's very important.' Wang went on to say bluntly that 'deals are lost because of UX.' Mueller agrees, but he places some caveats on just how good an enterprise UX must be:

It's important for adoption - but you only have to be the relative best. It's not like users can leave your app like they can in consumer-grade apps. All the blah blah on 'consumer-grade UI' is marketing. As long as employees can only go on vacation if they put their vacation request in, they will do it - no matter how bad the UI is. For voluntary usage, UI more important. But then speed, data,  online/offline matter. There is still an offline sales CRM indudstry.

2. Is consumer-grade level app look and feel necessary? I asked the guys if other factors like speed and offline access are more important than an amazing UI. In other words: do we need to deliver a 'beautiful and delightful' experience now?

Wang says the type of user impacts the answer: 'The use case will dictate what's required.  Power users may want heavy tables and lots of functions.  But business users will want consumer grade apps or face an uphill adoption battle.'  Mueller is blunt: 'At the end productivity matters to customers. Being good enough and not losing deals suffices for the vendors.'

3. Do customers have the skills to do this in house, or do they need outside designers? Implicit in this question is another one: do developers need to become designers? The short answer? Outside designers are needed. Wang noted that cloud deployment is another factor: 'It's best to work with a design firm to lay out a framework that you can build and extend over time.  UX/UI often is something you need to refresh fairly often.  Hence, it's easier in SaaS/Cloud models.'  Mueller thinks UX is moving too fast to address it internally:

Outside help is needed. UX moves too fast and becomes stale in-house. Companies should always go outside. Enterprise developers can't learn UIX - they do not care for it enough and struggle with accepting anyone has a problem with 'their' software. UI goes down the drain if you leave it to developers. You need frameworks that they cannot break otherwise you end up in consistency 'hell'.

Industry and data model nuances can't be ignored

We already touched on the importance of UI simplicity, but what about an 'invisible UI?' In an August 2013 post, Vinnie Mirchandani called out the enterprise UX for being too bulky:

I was reading this Wired quote about Dieter Rams' philosophy about product design: 'It doesn’t draw attention to itself; it merely allows users to accomplish their tasks with the maximal amount of efficiency and pleasure. At its best, it is invisible.' And thinking, in contrast, how loudly 'visible' enterprise software UI is. It is a major competitive feature in enterprise deals with plenty of screamns about 'our UI is prettier.

Mirchandani goes on to cite UX innovations in retail, health care, home devices, and automobiles. In each case, designers are rethinking user experience in the context of smart devices and tech advances. In retail, facial recognition can identify VIP customers. Self-checkout spares checkout lines. In the home, smart cookware keeps pans hot, smart thermostats warn of hot spaces with color-coded lights.  Healthcare is pushing out wearable tech of all varieties. The list goes on, but it's all part of UX now. Mirchandani wraps by challenging enterprise vendors to think beyond their limiting design assumptions, moving past the keyboard and mouse.

Fair points - but enterprise data must still be reckoned with. Diginomica reader Baruch Sachs argues simplicity in enterprise UX means reckoning with the underlying data model:

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.. 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.

Enterprise UX - my take

I ran out of space in this post before I could raise questions about what a 'consumer-grade UX' actually is. Too often, Facebook is held up as a gold standard, but I could poke so many holes in the Facebook UX it would look like a colander.

For a seamless integration of community and commerce, I'd pick Amazon. And when I chose a newsreader after Google kiboshed Reader, I chose Newsblur because it had the best performance for 1,000+ feeds - even though there were better looking (e.g. consumer grade) newsreading alternatives. But that's a debate for another time.

Here's how I see the enterprise UX issue:

  • Distinguish between UI and UX. UI is a smaller part of the overall UX where offline capability and back end integration might trump a sexy screen.
  • The mobile experience should drive UX design towards simplicity, but those lessons should be brought back to the desktop.
  • Speed is (almost) everything, data integration is next in line.
  • Business and casual users have a higher UI standard.
  • UX rarely works without a design process that includes the target user.
  • Apps that are constantly revised and updated are usually better (e.g. 'start small').
  • Be very careful about apps that require fast broadband to work effectively (what if your target user is on bad airport wifi?).
  • 'Consumer-grade UI' is not a requirement, but it's a healthy long term aspiration.
  • Great UX means new skills and design processes - outside experts may be needed.
  • Industry nuance and user role are critical (one UX rarely suits all).
  • Process complexity is a poor excuse for ugly design; simplify the data model for the mobile screen if necessary.
  • Failure is less concerning than the status quo, which will result in users going rogue and downloading their own apps.

Final thoughts - what's next

Compared to where we were three years ago, enterprise UX has come a long way. The reality may leave a lot to be desired, but if vendor marketing urgency is any indication, consumer pressure for a better experience is winning out.

I was curious to find out which vendors have a leg up on UX. I asked Mueller and Wang for their faves. Wang: 'Some great UI is IFS. Their mobile apps always had great UI. Infor has done a great job with Hook & Loop, and SAS Visual Analytics is pretty amazing.' Mueller's picks? He likes the Oracle iPad HCM app, and agrees on Wang's IFS and Infor examples. At the end of Brian Sommer's piece on SAP's UI Makeover, Sommer cited Infor, SumTotal and Sage.

Last year, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I kicked tires on a number of enterprise apps, and just as many consumer apps. The best of the consumer apps were eye-popping, with a level of design inspiration still sorely lacking on the enterprise side. But they were designed by a different type of developer. That gap is starting to close. More enterprise app developers are integrating iOS and Android rock stars into their practices; more vendors are pursuing Infor's Hook & Loop approach.

I've only scratched the surface on enterprise UX, but my pal Vijay Vijayasankar tells me he is restless to riff on this topic so he can bat cleanup - take it away Vijay.

Image credit: Phone and spring landscape © Givaga -
Disclosure: Oracle and SAP are diginomica premier partners.

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