Bull Session

Designing Enterprise UX

December 18, 2014          

Episode Summary

With the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) movement and consumer software upending the traditional enterprise environment, it's no surprise the enterprise user experience is becoming a hot topic for companies looking for increased productivity and a competitive advantage in their respective industries. But the user expectations generated by consumer software, the myriad of devices, and the intricacies of enterprise requirements, create a complex UX problem set that's not so easy to crack. In this episode of The Digital Life, we explore some of the issues that enterprise UX bring to the fore, consider the future landscape as software "eats the world", and discuss the skills that UX designers will need to tackle these challenges.

Welcome to episode 82 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures and the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Hey, Jon. How you doing today?

Great. Yes, I’m excited about our topic for the program today which is user experience design for the enterprise. As you know, this is a topic that’s really heating up in the design and software world, in part because people are beginning to look at enterprise software as almost an extension of their experience with software in other realms mostly that in the consumer category, and they’re starting to expect more from their software that they work with day in and day out. That provides a lot of exciting opportunities to up level enterprise software, but at the same time, there are a lot of differences between consumer software and enterprise software that may not be immediately apparent, so I thought we’d dig in to that topic today, and I wanted to start off first with a little discussion about the so-called ‘Bring Your Own Device Movement’.

Our listeners I’m sure are very familiar with this, but for those who may find the term new, it’s about bringing your tablet devices, your mobile devices … etcetera into work and wanting to communicate with your enterprise software no matter what the industry, and expecting a smooth experience to happen while you’re doing that. Dirk, as you’ve seen the BYOD Movement start to happen, what are some of the things that you’re seeing and what’s been your impression so far about how the enterprise has been able to integrate these devices?

It’s a pretty mixed bag. Some companies adopted them earlier, some still haven’t, some have had really smooth adoption, some have had very rocky … so I think it’s all over the map basically. I mean, if there’s one thing to take from, and it’s that there’s no standardization, no consistency, and it really is sort of a company by company situation.

Yes. I think that’s correct. I mean, there are a number of industry verticals that we have experienced at our software design studio, and one of those being healthcare where the ‘Bring Your Own Device Movement’ is basically a nightmare come true because you’ve got all of this very sensitive information that populates healthcare databases, whether it’s medical information or social security numbers, or information about treatments, and to suddenly have the need to access this information from what basically amount to being private devices without that corporate vetting that goes on for say your desktops, in healthcare at least, I know that it’s very challenging for a number of reasons … those few that I mentioned, and additionally, just dealing with legacy, implementations, or whether it’s databases or web browsers or what have you.

I think you’re right. There’s a varied landscape when it comes to ‘Bring Your Own Devices’, and it provides I think a pretty deep challenge for the user experience designer who wants to start mitigating some of those awful experiences that people are having. Dirk, what have you seen in terms of some of the differences between trying to create a smooth experience, a pleasant, beautiful experience on the enterprise side versus perhaps what people are more familiar with which is consumer software? What are some of the things that make those two spaces very different?

I mean, the biggest is complexity. For people who maybe don’t have experience with both consumer and enterprise, you may not understand the degree of this. I mean, consumer software for the most part is designs for you to use really quickly, easily, get in, out, do what you need … Some things have other used cases that take more time, but still the real thrust of good consumer software is about being really soft of quickly usable, light weight, little learning curve … whereas enterprise is the opposite.

Enterprise is so complex, and of course there’s less complex enterprise software, but for the meaty, right in the wheelhouse of the typical enterprise software, you’re talking about something that is so much more complicated than consumer software. It has to support order or orders of magnitude more used cases, and those used cases can be rough.

I know one of the first enterprise softwares I worked on, there were core used cases that would take people 15 clicks, 20 clicks just to do one thing which was a nightmare. We reduced that to two or three, but it really speaks to the enormity of complexity that enterprise software offers. As a creator, I find that more interesting to solve those problems, but it sure as hell is harder too.

Yes. I think you start to see right there the maybe not conflicting, but certainly at least the potential for conflict is there between this desire … I mean, that people have had obtained from the consumer side of software which is the very easily and smoothly, complete whatever task it is they’re trying to achieve versus the depth and breadth of the used cases that are present on the enterprise side.

There’s maybe not an expectations mismatch, but certainly it’s hard to dovetail those two together and make something that fits, which I think requires going forward different design techniques to … Maybe simplify is the wrong word, but to minimize these long workflows and click streams, or even to come up with point solutions on the enterprise side where you’re just doing a very specific set of tasks that are part of a larger ecosystem of tasks within the enterprise.


Those are just two examples of some of the things that I think UX designers who are willing to take on these problems that we’re going to have to wrestle with. What intrigues me so much about this is I think there probably is a light at the end of the tunnel … some solutions and maybe ways of considering these two opposite priorities and bringing them together. To be honest, I think we’re right at the beginning of that, and I don’t there are very easy paths for designers to take when we’ll call it ‘Consumerising enterprise software’. What do you think of that, Dirk?

Yes. I think that’s true. The market is changing. I mean, just in the last few months, we’ve had multiple clients that we’ve dealt with who said, “Hey. The reason that we were interesting in Involution is you guys have proven that you can do enterprise software that looks like consumer software”, right? That’s sort of a palpable identification by people on the enterprise side who are saying, “Look. The state of enterprise software from the standpoint of aesthetics is far beyond consumer,” and we want more of that, and it’s hard to find again because of the differences in complexity.

What’s a little … I don’t know if funny is the right word. As a user, it’s disheartening, so I guess disheartening. What’s a little disheartening is when consumer companies are trying to design complex software that would be more down the path of enterprise software as opposed to consumer, and I’m going to pick again on my favorite whipping post, is Apple.

I mean, iTunes is a total shit show. iTunes is a pretty complex piece of consumer software, like there’s a lot of different types of media and people want to consume it in different ways, there’s a lot of data, there’s management of your library versus used cases in the store … As consumer software goes, iTunes is pretty tough, and Apple does such a crummy job with it. It’s terrible to use. It’s so badly designed, and it really goes to show that success in a more straight forward consumer design context certainly does not translate over to the things that are more complex.

Yes. I think that’s an interesting theme that we’re banging on again and again which is the idea of this mismatch between the really complex workflows and tasks, and then this idealistic sort of, “Hey. I just want to be able to immediately and intuitively know what this software does, and just be able to touch it and go without first spending a little time to adapt to this tool and to learn about it, and to go my way up the learning curve.”

I think there is definitely going to be a need for some push back to say that with complex software, even if it is a little bit more consumer-friendly on the enterprise side, with complex software, there is always going to be a learning curve, right? There is always going to be a need for the person who understands it and spends a lot of time with it, and learns how to use it in a professional setting, and that is not going to go away. I think that’s the flip side of the design coin there.

We want more consumer-friendliness in our enterprise software, but there is always going to be a need for designing for the intermediate user, rather than the simple use case — first time, one-and-done user — which is very different.

Yes. The challenge for designers and other UX professionals is that, if you have been successful in designing in a consumer context or for something that’s less complex, like designing successfully in the enterprise, it’s almost like a whole different skill set. It’s almost like a whole different art because of the mammoth nature of again, the use cases and the complexity. You can’t go about the things that you’re doing the same way. You can’t look at the scale and type a nature of research the same way, the way that you architect the product and the interaction models that you consider and employ need to be thought of completely differently. So it’s a new frontier.

I think to bring this all to a head … Why is this important? Why is design for the enterprise so important? I love this quote that Marc Andreessen said about software eating the world, right? Everything’s becoming software, and our lives are increasingly spent interacting with software. At least now, it’s for knowledge workers.

Why is it so important to get design for the enterprise correct? We’re going to have a lot more enterprise tools going forward. We think we’re inundated now with new tool sets. That’s only going to increase over time.

I think we can achieve that goal of a pleasant user experience and useful and beautiful and all of those things, but in some ways in the enterprise, we are a few years from that I think from finding a really good way of moving forward through all of these complex software types, which is not to say that … Don’t get me wrong. I think there’s lots of great enterprise software out there that has been created and architected in a great way, but the landscape of enterprise software is so much more convoluted and ugly frankly, the comparison to the consumer great stuff that we see all the time.

Any parting thoughts on this great new frontier, or rather maybe the great old frontier that’s going to be getting a new look on the enterprise side, Dirk?

Just if you’re someone in UX who hasn’t done enterprise and you’re planning to do it, just get ready to rethink everything. If you come in with the same mindset and the same approaches, you’re probably setting yourself up for failure in one stripe or another. It’s sort of a different beast. If you’re going that way, it’s tough. If you’re going from enterprise to consumer, you’re probably going to start by over boiling the ocean. You’re going to go too far, and you’re going to breathe a sigh of relief when you realize how much simpler in a lot of ways the consumer side really is.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to ‘Thedigitalife.com’. That’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.

If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at ‘Jon Follett’. That’s J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at ‘Goinvo.com’. That’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter at ‘D Knemeyer’. That’s ‘@Dknemeyer’, or email me, ‘Dirk@goinvo.com’.

That’s it for episode 82 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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Jon Follett

Dirk Knemeyer


Co-Host & Producer

Jonathan Follett @jonfollett

Co-Host & Founder

Dirk Knemeyer @dknemeyer

Minister of Agit-Prop

Juhan Sonin @jsonin

Audio Engineer

Michael Hermes

Technical Support

Eric Benoit@ebenoit

Original Music

Ian Dorsch @iandorsch

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Episode Summary

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Episode Summary

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