Welcome to episode 127 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett. With me is UX designer, strategist, author, and consultant Uday Gajendar. Uday, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Jon. It’s great to be here.
For our topic this week on the podcast, we’re going to chat with Uday a little bit about the wicked craft of designing for enterprise user experience. Uday, could you give us a high-level overview of how you see the current state of enterprise software when it comes to user experience, when it comes to seeing the way enterprise software is in comparison to perhaps other software that we’re familiar with?
Yeah, sure. It’s a great question. When you think about enterprise software, that’s really such a broad swath, right? It’s huge, wide territory. It comes with lots of different protocols. You’re talking about financials, manufacturing, IT administration, healthcare, and so forth. I think on the whole, there’s definitely significant progress that’s underway in comparison to expectations around consumer software, and a big part of that is quite honestly and frankly, thanks to the iPhone and other modern conventions and interface innovations that have come about, the Nest, Web 2.0, Web 3.0, whatever you want to call it. They have created expectations, and I think to a large degree, they’re starting to become translated into effective, much more promising interfaces and experiences when it comes to enterprise.
There are a couple in particular that made me feel very optimistic, very hopeful. I think about Salesforce, what they’ve done recently with the Lightning System with a comprehensive video and interaction design system and library. GE, which has been tackling the whole machine that think, the intelligent nature of those machines transferring data and information. They have this new thing called “Critics,” so I know they’ve been working very hard on that the last few years. Again, creating interactions and visual models that really map to expectations around using the phone, using a tablet, and using other kinds of devices that are not your typical web-based interaction.
There are others as well. Slack is totally blowing things up from an interaction model perspective in creating that compelling, delightful experience around collaboration. There are definitely pockets and definitely exemplars out there, and that gives me a lot about hope and optimism. The progress is good, but there’s still tremendous work to be done.
When you look at not just the heroes and exemplars out there, but also, you think about … and this is coming from the recent conference, the Enterprise UX Conference we held in San Antonio back in May of this year. I’m one of the co-organizers. We had folks there who work at companies like some insurance company in … I don’t know, Nebraska or Kansas, or somebody from Florida, Fort Lauderdale. They’re working on some kind of interesting IT app, and yet they don’t have the resources that may be available in Silicon Valley and those kinds of venues, and so they’re fighting the good fight, right?
There’s still tremendous challenges to be taken when it comes to figuring out workflows, understanding the overall experience model, and really defining the customer journey in such a way that folks from sales, manufacturing, marketing, and so forth can be participatory and really feel like they’re owners of that compelling, amazing experience for their end-users. The progress is good. I feel very optimistic. We still have a long, hard road ahead, but it’s great to see so many people willing to be a part of that.
Yeah. It definitely has turned a corner in recent years, so we all have a chance now of having enterprise software that doesn’t suck.
Why don’t you give us and the listeners an idea of some of the scale in complexity of Enterprise UX problems because the workflows and … both in the number and complexity of workflows and the number of use cases are just so different from consumer software in a lot of ways, and they’re all business critical, so you have to account for them all?
Give us an idea of what that world looks like.
Yeah. Jon, I think you hit upon it exactly right. They are business critical, and I think that’s what differentiates enterprise software from consumer. These are applications, tools, and services that must be used for 8, 9, maybe 10 hours a day for somebody to get their job done in some capacity, right, whether it’s healthcare, or an IT admin, or somebody in sales, marketing, whatever it is. Because of that, there’s also an interesting set-up in terms of … It’s not just a piece of software you can go to Best Buy and just purchase it, right? There’s an entire sales process and variety of stakeholders.
At the end of the day, it’s not just the users, there’s also the buyers and the choosers, so there’s a whole array of individuals who have their own, frankly, agendas, right, and competing perspectives, and priorities around making decisions as to which software to purchase and what features should be a part of that, and also configuration. That’s another big aspect. The configuration aspect is really critical.
I used to work at Citrix and places … Oracle, Citrix, Cisco, a variety of companies. Every single time, it wasn’t just, “Okay, we’re creating this piece of software for this user.” It’s really more about, “We’ve got a customer. That customer is a big bank in Midwest based in Chicago. They have a very specific requirements, and they want to do a custom configuration.” Right? There’s always that kind of thing happening. We’ve created this whole kind of ecosystem of value in terms of system integrators, and then so on and so forth.
When it comes to complexity and in the scale, you’re really talking about an entire ecosystem, and really, it’s a territorial thing. Yeah, they were close, right, and they were close or apart of the daily work and practices of these individuals, knowledge workers, and so forth, but there’s also the whole landscape of, “How you drive a sales process whereby the requirement at the user level are being captured and advocated for in addition to the competing priorities and agendas of various other folks that are being sought after and being talked to?” You got to figure out the configuration systems. You got to figure out, “Okay. What is the environment, and would the environment support what we can provide for them?”
When I was at Citrix, we had this … of course, we were driving a revolution around design thinking company-wide and culturally across the org. One of the things that … one of the design leaders put together this presentation. She had this really nice side-by-side photo comparison of what we currently offer as an enterprise company versus what people really want.
On one side, it was basically an array of mechanical parts of a car, right? You got the muffler, you got all these gaskets, and widgets, and nuts, and bolts, and they’re all laid out because the idea is it’s about configuration. In the other photo next to it is the actual BMW, or Ferrari, or whatever it is that somebody really wants to buy because that is like the goal. Somebody wants high-performance acceleration, something beautiful, and makes them feel excited to actually want to own it and drive it. They’re competing perspectives, right?
A lot of enterprise companies and firms are set up around the first image, around configuration, and the parts, and components. What we need to move towards is the second image, which is people want to buy the BMW because there’s a goal of acceleration, and there’s an emotional component as well. Sorry, I’m drifting off the point here …
No, that’s very good. Yeah. Yeah, I like that.
Yeah. It’s like, “How do you reconcile the complexity, which is not just part of the product or the service, but it’s around all these other factors that influence why enterprise software is so difficult and frustrating to use?”
You’ve been involved in the creation of a lot of enterprise software, and I think you touched a little bit on how you are using design thinking at Citrix. How is user experience changing the way the enterprise works? I think you were getting into that a little bit, but I want to explore that more.
Yeah, yeah. Definitely, definitely. Yeah. At Citrix, just to give some background for listeners. I was part of this initiative. It started in fall of 2009 to really bring design thinking as a concept into reality for the organization, and that means the entire company, which at the time was about 7,000, 8,000. I think it’s now 10,000 worldwide, with direct support from the CEO who recognized that design thinking should become a strategic top-tier competency for the company in terms of competitive advantage, so it’s fantastic.
We’ve got that CEO backing, so that allowed us to really set up the groundwork for doing things like modifying the space, so we started to create these studio spaces where we had whiteboards, we had writable tables, which are fantastic, movable furniture. Everything is on wheels. Sticky notes everywhere. That’s one of the things we’re trying to do.
We’re also trying to allow people to have the permission to do whatever you want to apply creative thinking to solve … First, to understand a problem, and then to solve that problem accordingly to give your people permission to try things out and permission to fail. If it fails, that’s okay, right? We want to recognize that, we want to celebrate a little bit, and allow people to go through that creative process. That comes back to tools and methods, and then thinking about strategies.
Okay. It’s not just enough to say, “Okay. We’re going to acquire this company for X amount of dollars, and then we’re just going to absorb their 150 features into an existing product line.” We really need to do a much deeper analysis, much more thoughtful reflection around, “What are the use cases? Where in the customer journeys? How do we map that out? What are the stakeholder assessments and so forth?” We’re really providing a toolkit to bring that level of thought and diligence into something that would have been normally just a mainstream typical action like, “Ah, we’re just going to require a company and collapse all the functionality into each other.”
There are various ways that we were trying to have impacts tactically, strategically in terms of how enterprise software was being built and really I guess created and so forth. That’s at Citrix. The other companies are doing other things as well. I mentioned GE, Salesforce, and so forth. I think it all comes back to, “How do you come up with a way to influence the hearts, and minds, attitudes, mindsets, but also provide the tools, so they feel like they’re making a practical action that’s very apparent and visible, so that they can share it with other people and really generate traction, get participants working together?”
I’ll never forget this one final anecdote when it comes to changing the way enterprise works. When we set up that initial studio space, or the whiteboards, and sticky notes, and so forth … and by the way, had glass walls, so fully transparent. The idea was to allow you to walk by, see what’s happening, and get inspired. One of the general managers who was about to kick off their … what they call “QBR,” Quarterly Business Review, he decided to do it inside the studio.
13:58] PowerPoint. Instead, he thought, “You know what? We’ve got the studio,” and he had just been through a design thinking boot camp workshop we had done the previous week, “Why don’t we just do it in the studio, and give everyone sticky notes, and allow people to talk about what were their successes and failures for this past quarter, and then how we can move forward for the next quarter?” It turned out to be a fantastic exercise. Just those kinds of actions, I think that’s proof positive that there are ways to help improve the way enterprise works.
Yeah. That’s a great anecdote. I like that, seeing some design thinking in action. Let’s talk a little bit about enterprise users. User types, as you well know, it’s very different from your consumer user types. In fact, you can even end up with a user type where there’s only like very few of them, right, but they’re critical to the system?
If you’re a designer tackling an enterprise software problem, how do you get to know some of these user groups? What are some things that designers can do to better understand this wide variety and very specific user types that make up the enterprise user?
Yeah, it’s a fantastic question. Let me go back to when I left Citrix and decided to join a startup, CloudPhysics, which is a big data analytic startup focused on analyzing virtual infrastructure, and server hardware, and so forth. I joined as Director of UX, their first official hire. Of course, that means I was a team of one, pretty much charged to do with everything.
When I joined, they asked me about hiring and if there’s budget, “What kind of hires you want to make?” I said, “The first person I need to hire is a researcher,” and they were a little bit surprised by that. I think they expected me to say, “Well, we need a visual designer, someone to crank out the assets or whatever.” No. It’s because I need research to help me understand, “What am I designing, and who is this really for, and how is this going to help that end-user be effective in terms of their day-to-day job?”
It all comes back to a statement I’ve made recently at a conference. For me, personally, I cannot design without research, and for me, that requires talking to these folks. I got to talk to these people. Skype is okay, but I think it’s even better to be on site and actually go visit them and see them in their daily natural habitat. There’s something to be said for how people work in an environment that may be not well-lit. Maybe there’s a lot of background noise. If they’re working with servers and so forth, it’s a cold, noisy server room. They may not hear the phone alerts, right, if you’re creating a mobile app?
Thinking about those kind of environmental conditions, and also for the fact that these folks do not work in isolation. Whether it’s healthcare, or financials, or IT admin, they’re working with other people, and so you want to understand what’s that social flow of information. If Sally gets a message, and then talks to Bob, and then Bob calls up Allan, who then sends an email to Frank. What’s that flow like, and how are they doing that in real time using certain tools or devices on hand?
It’s so fascinating to see that up close and in person, and it gives you a sense of, yes, empathy, but also an appreciation for the difficulties and opportunities within that context, which may not be as apparent from just a phone call. Either way, you got to do research, you got to get out there, you got to observe, you got to absorb and understand, and then come back and synthesize, and that’s the best way to do it.
I also want to add one more thing really quick, and that is a little exercise I tried at CloudPhysics. Because it’s all about dashboards, and analytics, and so forth, I wanted to understand, “Okay. What is the current world of at least these IT admins? What are they dealing with in terms of interfaces?” I conducted what I called a “Visual Empathy Exercise,” which is a fancy way to say. I just went out, and I talked to these folks, RPNs and sales directors.
They pointed me to certain people that I could talk to, and just grab screenshots of the current existing tools that they’re using. I got all the screenshots, and I put it on this huge poster like it illustrate … it was like 6 feet wide or something, right? I printed it out. It costs like $100 to print it out because I want it high-res and put it on the wall at CloudPhysics, and I wanted to make sure that our product managers, our engineers, our salespeople, and our CEO, our founders understood this is literally the world, the visual interface world that our users are unhappy right now, right, because I want them to understand, “Here are the problems, and challenges, and difficulties,” right?
And get a sense, “Okay. This is the world they’re in right now. We need to get them out of this world into a new world that CloudPhysics can provide.” That was really fascinating as an exercise, and I’d encourage folks to do that. I think it will raise lots of questions, which are useful, and maybe it will lead you down a very useful direction.
Yeah. I like that a lot, and I bet you … Halloween is coming up. I bet you that poster would have been a good horror movie poster for the UI folks.
My last question for you this afternoon, Uday, is, could you tell us a little bit about the term “wicked craft” and what it has to do with enterprise user experience?
Sure. Wicked craft is my shorthand way of suggesting that there is valuable use and applicability of what we traditionally think of as craft within the enterprise base, and what I mean by that is … When we think about craft, there’s a sense of understanding that, “Okay. It’s about something that’s very well-made, with attention, deliberation, and a sense of care, and focus, and beauty.” Qualities that we typically ascribe to something that may be more on the consumer side of things.
You think about Apple, Tesla, Dyson, the Shinola watches coming out of Detroit. I love them. They’re beautiful and fantastic. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be a place for craft on the surface in enterprise software. Why is that? With enterprise, there’s a lot of wickedness, right? The complexity and ambiguity that we just talked about for the past 15 minutes or so, and yet there must be a way to somehow insert craft into that perplexing puzzle.
What I suggest is that craft not as the beautiful or refined object, but craft as a way of making your way, of creating temporary trench, and throwaway artifacts, and so forth can actually be a very effective method of resolving the complexity and ambiguity, and getting folks like sales, marketing, engineering, and so forth to want to be part of that dialogue to figure, “Okay. What is our problem’s base, and how do we best solve it?” It’s really just a way of thinking about craft in a somewhat novel way, what I call the “Facilitative Anchor.” How do you create something that can really usher a positive and powerful conversation that can help you make decisions and resolve conflicts that will ultimately lead to a happier customer and user?
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things 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, @jonfollett. 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.com. Uday, how can listeners get in touch with you outside of the show?
Yeah. The best way is really to reach me on Twitter. My handle is “Udanium.” That’s U-D-A-N-I-U-M. Of course, hit me up on LinkedIn if
you have any thoughts or questions as well.
That’s it for episode 127 of The Digital Life. I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.