Enterprise UX - in pursuit of a moving target

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 29, 2014
Should there be different UX criteria for the enterprise? To brace myself for another round of enterprise UX hype, I went looking for fresh answers.

We're entering the silly season in enterprise UX, when software vendors assure us their UX is "consumer grade." Putting a fresh coat of paint on an ocean liner may buy some time, but for the enterprise, UX is never as simple as it sounds.

"Consumer grade UX" sounds nifty, but are enterprise UX design constraints the same as consumer apps? Or should there be entirely different UX criteria for the enterprise?

To get ready for the next round of vendor UX hype, I went looking for some fresh UX answers. The good news: there are gobs of resources for those looking to refashion themselves as UX designers. The bad news: there isn't much that specifically details the difference between consumer and enterprise UX.

Even the best UX content falls into the view that enterprises must mimic the best consumer apps, or else the next generation of workers won't be willing to log in. But that's simplistic.

I did, however, find one webinar that had a useful take on the consumer versus enterprise UX issue, courtesy of Propelics, a firm that bills itself as experts in enterprise mobile strategy and apps development (you can see the replay on YouTube, and the slides are here with sign up).

Let's run through my notes on the Propelics UX presso (which focuses on mobile UX), and wrap up with some sticking points.

Framing the enterprise UX challenge

Presenter Steven Brykman, Digital Strategist and UX Architect with Propelics, kicked off with the predicaments of enterprise UX:

  • Consumer ux has a five year head start on enterprise ux
  • The idea of hiring a designer specifically for enterprise ui and/or ux is still "relatively new"

And, I would add, it's not easy to hire a modern UX designer - though design shops pitching themselves as enterprise UX ninjas are everywhere, if you're willing to outsource the process.

So what? In other words - what if companies forge ahead without applying modern UX principles?

Brykman paints a unsavory picture: First off, developers will end up coding in whatever language is easiest and fastest for them. Traditionally, these same developers will handle the design of applications also, whether or not they are skilled in UX. Brykman notes that:

With traditional enterprise apps, the onus is on the user to understand the application. Obfuscation and complexity are often mistaken for sophistication.

Why would enterprises build clunky apps? To keep expenses lean, for one thing. Historically, companies viewed apps development costs in a narrow way that overlooked hidden costs.

As Brykman points out, rolling out apps without proper UX design comes at a price:

  • Employees have to be trained in needlessly complex processes
  • Bad UX also impacts retraining costs and causes mistakes in data input
  • User frustration leads to additional help desk strain and expense
  • Crashes and errors from inappropriate usage places a tech support burden on IT

And, I would add, an even more serious cost: today, a poorly-designed app will face a serious lack of adoption. Not just lack of adoption: users will actively download and utilize alternatives, creating monster headaches for IT.

The good news is that enterprises are catching on to these hidden costs. IT directors have realized that lack of adoption hurts their corporate position and chances of project success. Gartner has noted that "UX has become a board level issue."

Enterprise UX is pushing quickly past the desktop

But with the recognition of the need for a better enterprise UX, new problems have emerged: the proliferation of mobile devices has upped the ante on design considerations.

Smaller screens must be accounted for, while more data than ever before needs to be accessible. And, as the Propelics team cautions, the lack of keyboard and mouse must be accounted for. Optimizing for specific mobile devices and operating systems must also be considered, while variations in mobile OS drive complexity. As As Brykman put it:

Given HTML 5 and responsive design, it is more imperative than ever that companies hire UI/UX designers who specifically understand the unique demands particular to the mobile environment.

So even as we build a sensibility for enterprise UX design, we must recast it in terms of mobile design. The second half of the Propelics webinar goes into a deep dive on mobile UX design, and it's worth a look. For now, the quick takeaway is the published design guidelines of the main smartphone players:

Apple's Mobile Human Interface Guidelines
Design Guidelines for Android
Windows Phone Design Principles

No need to reinvent the wheel when well-tested mobile design principles are already documented. Mobile is not the end of it, though. As Gartner analysts Richard Fouts and Julie Hopkins emphasize in a recent UX webinar, a computing world of wearables and smart coffee makers changes the UX equation yet again. As Fouts put it, "Is my Buick a wearable?"

During their presentation, Fouts and Hopkins walk through ten examples of what they consider cutting edge UX - each one a collaboration between a "premium UX design firm" and a customer. Examples include IBM Interactive teaming up with Wimbledon to create the Ace Fan mobile experience, and Dunkin Donuts working with SapientNitro to move to digital menu boards.

One of the most compelling examples is the classic collaboration between MIT Media Lab and Design Continuum. The goal? To design a $100 laptop computer for children in remote areas and/or developing countries:


Source: Gartner webinar, What's Next in User Experience Design?

What stands out for enterprise UX from this example? An expert knowledge of the end user. In this case, the limitations of circumstance (e.g. the need for a cheap and rugged device) trumped all other design agendas. Yes, the device had to be fun, but at a $100 cost limit, it wasn't about loading the laptop with perks. Consuming less power was more important than top line processing power.

It was about getting durable computers into kids' hands cheaply and quickly. Oh - and from the original design in 2005, user needs changed. As the project evolved, a new design firm (Quanta) helped to incorporate tablet designs and features.

My take

Learning from consumer apps makes sense, given that the best UX designers sharpened their chops on the consumer side. But a knee jerk attempt to duplicate consumer apps is going to fail.  Example: for enterprise UX, the ability to work offline (and sync data seamlessly) might be sexier than real-time bells and whistles. Consumer apps often assume constant connectivity.

As of this writing, most companies don't have the design skills to keep pace with UX needs. Research of the kind I've cited is helpful, but more distinctions between enterprise and consumer UX are needed.

Even if companies hire "premium UX" design shops to shore up skills gaps, it won't be easy to create indispensable apps that change the customer (or employee) experience.  Trial and error is going to be part of enterprise UX design for some time to come.

Note: this piece is part of an ongoing series I am writing for diginomica on enterprise UX and mobile app design.
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