You can't build a good enterprise UX without user research

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed September 22, 2015
User research can make the difference between a good enterprise UX and the wrong solution. I asked AKTA's Drew Davidson to make his case for user research on UX projects.

In my first piece on AKTA's approach to enterprise UX, we put stakes in the ground for building effective enterprise UX teams. But we skimped on the importance of user research - and why companies benefit from an outside perspective on user research. AKTA's Drew Davidson had more to say on why research is so crucial to good UX design.

The baseline for effective enterprise UX is this cold, unavoidable fact: desktop apps are going to fail if they are simply ported to mobile devices. Davidson:

Who wants to look at a 10,000-row spreadsheet on their phone? We try to get clients to understand why they are looking at that spreadsheet. Is there some smaller task, or a specific action they can do on-the-go that makes more sense to do on a phone?

Another golden rule of enterprise UX: expand the definition. As Davidson put it:

You have to expand your mind into realizing there's a lot of efficiency plays in the enterprise. That's the biggest negative trend I've seen. Too many companies think of UX as a very narrow, small definition of what it could be for them - and that's where the real value for them is going to be. Very few internal apps are going to see a return on investment if we're just putting lipstick on the pig. We need to go through a much deeper redo, with the actual user intentions, and some business metrics tied to it.

That means going beyond visual design. In Davidson's experience that younger UX designers who are new to the enterprise don't get that. Doing enterprise UX right means user research:

When the design industry comes to the enterprise, a lot of people think good design means good visuals only. They don’t realize that good design is a lot more than that. We have to go through the exercise of identifying the users and what their needs are. Especially in the enterprise, you run into situations where visual design would actually be bad for some of those users.

Why companies need user research expertise

That sounds right. But hold on - is Davidson saying that companies aren't experts on their own users? Can't companies do their own research? AKTA has found that companies can benefit from an outside assessment of user needs. That's because so much user behavior becomes ingrained into assumptions about how work is done. It can be hard to pick up on those assumptions from the inside.

User observation sessions surface inefficient processes and unexpected UX requirements. Still, I asked Davidson, "Don't companies know their own customers?" Davidson replied:

Companies definitely know their current customers' wants, and their desires for the next version of the software. They generally don't have a good understanding of what their customers truly need, and are expecting to do with their software. If you don't have a user researcher on staff, or if you've never used a researcher before, you just have too much-ingrained knowledge. Even when you go and ask questions of your current customers or put surveys together, you're inserting so much bias in the way you ask questions that you don't really get the data we need to come in and build a really good user experience.

A fair answer. But I asked Davidson to give a specific example of a question a company might not know to ask:

A lot of our research is observational, so we'll be looking over someone's shoulder and asking questions or asking them to talk loud. If you think about the entire workday of a person who's just sitting at a desk, our client's software's is only something they use 10 to 20 percent of the time to accomplish their overall job goal. A good user researcher will be looking at the context of our client software, which is counter-intuitive to what some our clients think because they're like, "You didn't find out if they like this button over here instead of over there."

What we might find is that if your software had this one feature that maybe integrated with the next piece of software in their users' workflow, that would be a huge productivity and UX gain. Forget where the button goes - we'll figure that out later. It's those questions the user research will get at is contextual. We need to understand the software environment AND the process outside of it.

This reminded me of an Infor example the Hook & Loop team gave me. Infor learned from observation that one of their customers had a yellow sticky note workaround that was simply part of their work day. That undocumented process could be incorporated into a new UX. Davidson added:

In our observations, we'll sometimes see users going into software and then copying/pasting crap from other software, and that's not feedback that our clients have ever gotten, like, "It'd be great if I didn't have to copy and paste," because that's not something people think of as an improvement. They know how to do it and they do it automatically, but if you can take away the need to do it at all, that's the thing that a good user researcher will identify.

Enterprise UX in action - a customer example

So how does this play out in the field? Davidson cited AKTA customer Exelon, an energy services provider:

They are in a highly regulated industry - exactly the kind of company that has as a problem attracting and retaining the talent that you would need to build digital products. They had an even bigger problem, though: they have a big gap in the ages of people who work there.

As Davidson told me, Exelon has a lot of young, talented employees. But: career development and employee retention posed problems. AKTA's user research uncovered that younger employees were getting bogged down by the organizational process and unclear career paths. In turn, this resulted in a huge gap between the very junior and very senior people in the company. Exelon thought that their talent challenge came down to improving their HR benefits. But AKTA's user research led to a different conclusion.

AKTA recommended providing clear career paths to the younger talent coming in. And: connect those people to senior associates for mentoring and general career advice. The research resulted in a custom solution:

We ended up building a tool for them where you can set your create path and enter the skills that you have right now. Let's say you were coming in as an associate analyst, and you want to become a senior director within the next five years. The tool will help you fill in the all the roles you need to jump through at Exelon in between, and then also which skills you need to develop. The app connects you with other people internally who already have those skills, as well as the training that's available for those skills.

To build the tool, AKTA's team designed a series of wire frame prototypes, running them by users. Alpha and beta trials were utilized prior to a bigger launch. The initial launch was for IT employees, but Exelon is now working with AKTA to roll the app out to the rest of the company.

The wrap - measuring user experience results

Enterprise UX is one of those maddening areas where the importance is clear, but benefits may not be easy to quantify. In the case of Exelon, Davidson's team starting by measuring user engagement:

We're going on close to two years from our first go-live. We've been adding to it ever since as the need grows. We see the actual analytics behind what people are using, and we add features based on their usage patterns. I don't have the latest stat, but it was around 80 percent of people who were using it.

The best part of that 80 percent adoption metric? The app is not required by HR for any mandatory processes, so that adoption level is all carrot, no stick. Though each project is different, AKTA measures their results based on factors like efficiency, engagement, and productivity.

For Exelon, Davidson attributes their success harnessing the perks and resources of working at a big company, and applying those assets to helping people map out their career advancements. But this popular app would never have been built without the truths uncovered in user research:

I credit that success to the design process, starting with that user research. We had to drop any preconceived notions. Going in, we thought the issue was mostly related to their HR benefits. That turned out not to be the problem at all.

End note: this piece is part of my ongoing diginomica series on Enterprise UX. If you know of an excellent UX story I should consider, please contact me on LinkedIn.

Image credit: – Where,who,when,how,why,what,questions and researching concept © Sondem -

Disclosure: AKTA was recently acquired by Salesforce, a diginomica premier partner. That news has already been noted by diginomica. This interview was pre-arranged to discuss AKTA’s take on UX. They were unable to comment on the Salesforce acquisition at the time of the interview due to legal constraints.


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