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Is the enterprise user experience overhyped?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed February 12, 2014
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 PC
You 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.

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