Enterprise UX futures - the good, the mind-bending, and the manipulative

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed December 14, 2016
Enterprise UX design has made big progress - but not so fast. The future of UX is rushing towards us, with AI, bots, voice, and wearables sending designers back to basic training. Then there's the design temptation of manipulating consumers. I take a look ahead - and hand out some informal 2016 UX awards.

2016 marked a turning point in Enterprise UX. Vendors small and large finally made good. We got better UIs and mobile experiences. Notice I didn't say "great screens and great mobile experiences." Thanks to customer pressure and bigger investments, enterprise vendors are progressing in UX design.

A big plot twist complicates the endeavor as the future races towards us. As I wrote in How does UX design fit into an augmented reality and 360 video world?:

Enterprise UX is changing faster than our collective design chops. Just when we get a handle on mobile UX, we get a slew of wearables to consider, along with virtual and augmented reality.

I could have thrown in voice-activated UX and chatbots. An Amazon Alexa keynote demo with no clothes isn't going to cut it anymore. In this piece, I'll share a few highlights from enterprise UX thinking in 2016, while previewing 2017.

Alas, it's not all happy UX talk. It's now become clear that the idealized "user experience" companies pay lip service to will face continual threats from marketing and sales. Good designs will be hijacked by interruption tactics to increase sales volumes - UX quality be damned.

Enterprise UX content - my 2016 mini-awards


Best forward-thinking piece of the year - Enterprise UX: Past, present and future by Charles McClelland. McClelland did the best job of what's-next-for-UX back in May, with a forward-thinking look at wearables, IoT, and virtual and augmented reality and AI. McClelland issues a warning call to designers. Start thinking about a "post-app" world:

The emerging umbrella term for where all this is heading is the 'post-app' world of pervasive computing, where desktop WIMP and mobile touch-driven interfaces are augmented or superseded by more 'natural' methods of user interaction. Some even go so far as to claim that, as the IoT and AI advance, designing for screens will "belong in the past" and that "the next big step will be for the very concept of the 'device' to fade away".

Best practical UX piece of the year - 5 UX issues retailers still struggle with Today's users have pressing UX needs besides wearables by Hannah Alvarez. UX design for retail and e-commerce is treacherous. The temptation to manipulate and cross-sell consumers is everywhere - rationalized by the benediction of "personalization." The heck with that. Just help users avoid e-commerce botches like purchasing fails:

Once customers open their shopping cart, the pressure is on. In some shopping carts, it’s difficult or even impossible to edit or delete items without navigating back to a product page. However, on some sites, navigating away can mean losing the items in the cart and having to start all over again. Prior experience with this means customers are likely to be timid about navigating away from their cart out of fear of losing their items—and that means they’re not making add-on purchases.

Best UX customer use case of the year - Here’s How Asana Won With Its Product Redesign. Full disclosure: I'm not 100 percent sure this article came out in 2016, but I read it in 2016 and that's enough for these purposes. Second, the site itself, FirstRound.com, indulges in obnoxious UX tactics like exit pop-ups. Ah, the contradictions. Anyhow, a keeper quote from Asana on getting momentum for a truly  user-centric redesign:

At Asana, we were seeing that the original design was the top reason why people wouldn’t recommend our product. That was a clear sign that we weren't able to fit into our users' modern lives and our cluttered UI was preventing them from getting value out of new functionality. It was evidence that our design was hindering us from growth and engagement, two metrics that grab the attention of and matter deeply to executives and PMs.

2017 enterprise UX - hype vs reality

Reading 2017 UX commentary, you'd think we're on the set of Minority Report. The reality is a bit like AI. In AI, chatbots have small brains for small use cases. Go for bigger things and risk a Microsoft Tay. UX is design-for-purpose. In a dangerous, hands-free setting like a utility pole, voice-activated UX might be now. Likewise, virtual reality is premature for most use cases (though not all), but an augmented reality feature for field sales teams to enhance their tablet demos might be 2017.

In May, ZDNet's Erin Carson did a useful summary of Five technologies that are changing the face of enterprise UX. The five are: Mobile, Wearables, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and Internet of Things. I would have added AI, bots, and voice-enabled interactions.

As we sort through the hype for 2017, a few things jump out. Sometimes the best UX is no UX. Designers are better off eliminating screens by teaming up with engineers for machine-to-machine communication that eliminates humans except for exception-handling. Sometimes a smart design is semi-automated. Carson:

There's a high degree of overlap between wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT) because both are heavily dependent on sensors. "Using beacons and sensors that trigger content on phones can be very useful when navigating or managing large office buildings or datacenters," says Max Dufour, partner at Harmeda. "Over time it is also an expectation from users to have the data come to them in a summarized and actionable format, rather than fetching the information manually."

Carson also noted that many wearables are still purpose-driven, not all-encompassing like Google Glass was. Pick a focused use case. Design for purpose. Newfangled tech becomes another tool in a tool kit, not a whole new world where budgets sink into quicksand.

On Forbes.com - another site with a truly terrible, ad tech drenched UX - Tomas Laurinavicius hit on UX Trends 2017: Experts Bet On AI, Chatbots And VR. I liked the comments from Noam Alloush, the founder of SITE123, who reminded us that the most potent UX trend remains the smart phone, as desktop websites look more and more like apps:

The UX trend will still be the mobile. Most of the desktop websites will look like an app. This is something that Google search engine, already began this year by removing their ads from the right menu - and the industry follows. It's important because any brand wants its users to use the same interface without the need to learn a new one each time they use a different device.

Alloush warns not to cram apps with too many features. The tension between features and simplicity will flummox UX designers' mobile imperative. Even mobile titan Facebook struggles with this, breaking off Messenger - but not necessarily solving the UX problem.

UX danger - crossing the line into consumer manipulation

Technology allows companies to play a volume game, with bad UX consquences. If companies are thinking volume, they might find the minority alienated by a ridiculous exit pop-up acceptable. I had that debate with Robert Rose of Content Marketing Institute. Companies are resorting to interruption tactics because the battle for attention means a web visitor might not come back anytime soon. So, the rationalization goes, interrupt them with a sign up.

That's a questionable UX decision. As I wrote in Robert Rose to Hippo Connect attendees: content strategy is “stuck in average”:

Rose admits they use opt-in pop-ups on the CMI site, “because they work.” But in the B2B space, you have to be wary which influential readers you alienate with aggressive opt-ins. Rose granted the point. We settled on one thing: the biggest friction is getting the opt-in. Once a visitor shares data, you’re onto something.

If the venerable CMI is using interruption tactics, that tells you content and great design can still be perceived by management as falling short. As companies push for opt-in data and sales bumps, there will be UX tradeoffs.

These UX predicaments go well beyond exit popups. Check 10 web design and UX trends to boost conversions in 2017, an infographic which extols the virtues of "shopping cart marketing". It's hard to imagine how a consumer ready to checkout will enjoy being pummeled by up-sells.

Then there are the so-called "value-based exit overlays," which arrogantly assume such value is universal. Not to mention: exit overlays have a nasty habit of interrupting you when you're not actually leaving a site. These interruption tactics diminish UX just like a poorly-staffed call center or elaborate voice mail tree diminishes customer experience.

Despite my design indignation, there isn't always a clear cut right or wrong here. But in markets where customer loyalty matters - particular in B2B where you risk alienating an influential budget-holder, these kinds of interruption tactics must be treated with care. Dressing them up in the guise of personalization or "giving customers choice" is pure BS. Acknowledge and weigh the tradeoffs accurately, without UX rationalization.

Final thoughts

Enterprise UX has come a long way. But there are bad roads and form factor hurdles ahead. I'll continue to track these themes in 2017; I'd enjoy hearing your views and story ideas - particularly UX use cases.

A few pieces of mine that come into play here:

Finally, designing to eliminate bias remains a vital and overlooked topic. I did a podcast on this topic live from Collision 2016: Designing for consent, and AI chatbot myths – live with Caroline Sinders. Sinders' views on designing for consent to reduce online harassment is a potent topic. I’ll embed the podcast below. Good luck in your 2017 design endeavors.

You can also download the podcast or get Busting the Omni-channel on iTunes

End note: updated with additional resource links and small tweaks for reading clarity, 11:30 pm PT, 12/15, 2016.


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