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How do we solve the Enterprise UX skills gap?

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 16, 2014
Enterprise UX is facing a good news/bad news predicament. The bad? The right UX skills are hard to find. The good? Field-tested methods are maturing.

Enterprise user experience is in a good news/bad news predicament. The good news? Enterprise UX is not just a Klout-happy phrase, it's a maturing set of field-tested methods. On the down side, the skills required for enterprise UX projects are complex and tough to find.

The enterprise UX designer is still a bit of a unicorn. The 'team skills' approach works better, but for every company that's figured it out, plenty more need guidance.

Prior to Sapphire Now, Brian Sommer and I hit on this topic with SAP's Sam Yen. Yen painted a daunting picture of UX skills readiness:

Some of our customers have thousands of IT people, so I'll ask them, 'How many of you have a designer on the staff'? Most of the room will put their hands down. For the few that still have their hands up, I'll ask them, 'What kind of designers do you have?' And they'll say, 'What do you mean? It's a designer.' But design is a field that's very nuanced. There's different skill sets. It's actually hard to find a designer who covers the different skills required to create that fantastic experience with a service or product.

In a follow-on post, Brian Sommer took it further, attributing UX overhauls to a broader shift from industrial age IT to a 'humanist' era in IT:

There’s a real skills crisis in IT -- and it's not a quantity issue... The new IT problems involve people, emotions, and other less-than-static, logical or perfect resources. The new IT is not what the old IT was designed to do. For some, the new IT will create opportunities; for others, soul-searching and less relevance.

From a practical standpoint, the challenge comes down to:

  • distinguishing between enterprise and consumer UX competencies, and
  • creating a skills plan to fill those gaps

It's no simple exercise, but there are some useful resources to ease the process pain. I've already posted on differences between enterprise and consumer UX, so with that in mind, what UX skills content is out there? For starters, I've put together a playlist of the best UX content on YouTube. Most of the videos are an hour in length and offer substance. I haven't watched them all yet, but one highlight is this talk by Janne Jul Jensen on User Interface (UX) Techniques.

'We know what we want to build' - but how?

Jensen titled her presentation 'But How? Methods and Techniques to Making a Good User Interface'. The 'But How' part is the sticky wicket. As she puts it:

Most developers today are perfectly aware that usability is a key point when it comes to making user interfaces. They also know all the things you should strive for. But they don't know what methods and techniques actually achieve this... I know it's important - but how?'

Jensen's talk addresses this question:

Jensen kicks off with her top ten UX process tips:

  • Simple and natural dialogue (between users and the on-screen process)
  • Speak the user's language (not the computer's language)
  • Minimize user memory load (example: multi-step buying process instead of one gigantus form)
  • Use constructive error messages (rather than cryptic error oodes)
  • Support recall (meaning: help users remember key actions with recognizable process steps)
  • Make clear exits (never get the user backed into a corner where they resort to the 'back' button)
  • Enable short cuts for super-users (example: keyboard shortcuts help super-users and don't distract novice users)
  • Give feedback (to user about what is happening, including steps completed, successful installs, expected wait times on downloads, etc).
  • Prevent errors (anticipate process glitches via role-based testing)
  • Thrive for UX consistency (don't deviate from trusted UX principles across products - differentiate in other ways, such as attractive graphic design)

During the Q/A, Jensen added the importance of building use cases around user stories and personas. Jensen points out that customers don't always know exactly what kind of app they want, or how to build it properly. Ergo, Jensen recommends facilitated design workshops with four key constituents: designers, domain experts, users and developers. She warns of the dangers of weak facilitation (a strong leader willing to put their ideas on the line is vital for encouraging others to do the same).

Design workshops should result in mockups based upon the needs of primary (and secondary) user personas. Finally, Jensen hits on the necessity of testing, and the importance of designing levels within a web site that are appropriate to degrees of user sophistication. Oh, and she swears a bit, so it may not be totally safe for all workplaces - it worked for mine.

UX skills need an enterprisey twist

A general view of UX skills helps us to a point. But we're in peril of miscalculation if we don't give these skills an enterprisey twist. During my last talk with Yen, he noted how few designers possess the range of UX skills needed, which include:

  • user profiling and research, informed by industrial psychology
  • interaction design: translating use cases into information architecture and screen elements
  • low and high fidelity mockup creation
  • user testing and prototyping
  • visual design
  • emotional design elements, branding, and verbiage
  • engineers to build the design
  • performance testing

Yen added the importance of facilitators/requirements gatherers who know how to ask the 'why' questions, determining the key parts of the user's role versus 'chores' that are not core to the user's role but must get done (e.g. timesheet processing).

The 'emotional' aspects of design were hammered home by Brian Sommer during our talk. Sommer used the example of abandoned shopping carts, which are not just a metric but may reflect an emotional breach of trust with a web site that bombards the user with additional offers and promotions, causing potential buyers to flee the scene. This led to Sommer's post on relevance of the 'ologists to a humanized IT.


As CIOs grapple with the UX imperative sparked by business users and consumer apps, skills gaps will cause migraines. Catering to scarce UX rock stars will be less effective than forming balanced teams. Fortunately, some designers have already dealt with UX rethinks on mobile app creation - they'll be an asset. Then there is the whole matter of Web UX versus overall customer experience, leading us to the enormous challenge of a great customer experience across channels.

Different types of enterprise users challenge UX assumptions. Example: casual users may value simplicity, but super-users might push back on simplicity for depth of functionality. One might think speed/performance trumps all, but for the enterprise super-user, consistency could be the deal breaker. As long as they know a report will always complete in a half hour, letting a task run over lunch might not alienate them. But the same thirty minute delay would be completely unacceptable for a casual user logging travel expenses on an iPhone.

On the good news front, UX training now exists in many forms, including online UX courses, formal degree programs and ebooks. (I've been checking out some decent UX material on While some - if not most - UX training lacks enterprise nuances, there's enough content out there to give ambitious teams a leg up.

Image credit: Nerd schaut durch Lupe auf Bildschirm © Light Impression -

Disclosure: SAP is a diginomica partner as of this writing.

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