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What Enterprise Software Users Really Want, If They Are Candid with Themselves

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
March 23, 2015

Perhaps it’s the fresh-faced optimism of the new-ish year, but lately, I’ve been seeing lots of instances where customers and users are telling UX designers in specific detail what it is they want out of their experience with software—and we, as UX designers, believing them. Not only do we believe them, but we are also creating experiences around what they say. I see designers brimming with confidence, strutting around with a self-assured smile on their face, only to have the dream dashed when users see a design that incorporates exactly what they told them to do and say, “I don’t like it.”

Now, I’m perhaps being a little dramatic to make a point, but I’m not too far off. This is an age-old design conundrum. On one hand, we want people to tell us what they want, right? As UX professionals, we continually call for time with users, to get at the heart of their wants and needs, so we can translate this information into delightful interaction design.

We want to trust what users are saying and, because of time and money pressures, this is what we actually do more often than we’d care to admit. But we find ourselves failing to verify that what users say they’re doing is actually what they’re doing. When you bring this desire to believe to large enterprise projects with multiple user communities, painful data-integration points, and a business culture that divides instead of collaborates, it becomes ever more difficult to know exactly who you should be listening to.

In such a context, UX professionals become sounding boards, taking in multiple streams of information from various groups and analyzing all of it. We then have to cross-check this data with considerations such as the political and cultural issues that permeate large enterprise projects, as well as their constrained development schedules. Finally, we have to figure out what we’re going to focus on and how we should implement our plan. This is a sobering task that can turn the most optimistic UX professional into a jaded person.

Why Do We Do It?

People have lots of reasons for getting into User Experience. Whether it’s a chance to do research, practice interaction design, or perform usability testing, all UX professionals have a single desire in common: the desire to help the people who use the systems they’re working on. Everyday, everyone—including UX professionals—uses systems that confound, frustrate, and, in general, block our attempts to accomplish all sorts of tasks. Every UX person has used something and said, “I could design that better!” For me, it’s almost a daily occurrence. For example, we see counterintuitive door handles everywhere that beckon us to pull when we need to push them.

Still, much like a person who gets into medicine or law enforcement to “help people,” wise realism soon replaces our bright-eyed optimism. In the world of design, you can’t help everyone or please everyone. Unfortunately, this moment seems to come more quickly in the world of enterprise user experience.

A Delighted User Still Feels Pain

This is not to say that users in the enterprise world are all that different from consumer users. In reality, they are the same people in different contexts. I see lots of similarities in the desires of all users—as well as in those of the business subject-matter experts with whom I consult. They all want great things from the products they use. By and large though, enterprise users don’t want delight. Or perhaps I should say that they don’t really even appreciate the possibility of delightful enterprise products at this point. The reason for this is very simple. The enterprise UX world is so fraught with pain that delight seems too far off to comprehend. In the enterprise software world, we are still at a stage when simply eliminating painpoints is a UX success story.

As a consequence, it is essential that we not just listen to what users say they want, but actually pay attention to how they really go about doing their jobs. Human beings are an amazingly optimistic group. We continually reach for the stars—and what better time to do so than during the ideation phase of a transformative, enterprise software-development project.

Unfortunately, in the world of enterprise software development, companies sometimes relegate features to “Phase 2,” pushing them off into an uncertain future. So, for years, their business users have gotten burned—giving up their wants and desires, thinking that they will be addressed during a Phase 2 of a project that never happens due to the shifting economic, political, and cultural winds in a corporate environment.

When we do user research or focus groups or create any type of forum where users can speak their hearts and minds, we should expect that they will talk about things in an idealized way. We should capture their viewpoints and take them into account, but they should not be the driving force behind a UX design. While this may be an oft-repeated piece of advice, UX professionals as a community seem to have a problem taking it. The desire to do right by the user is often mistaken for doing what they say they want.

To be fair, a lot of users’ expressed desires are relatively reasonable and achievable. It’s the small percentage of things that are not that tend to take over a project. The edge cases and what-ifs can run a project into the ground. I have lost count of how many meetings have dragged on and on, as people discuss them. Because these edge-case design questions take up so much valuable time, they can derail the best intentions of any Lean or agile UX design effort. While they might be okay within the context of a traditional waterfall approach, they’re completely antagonistic to any sort of agile software-development method.

Getting to Great UX Design

We do not accomplish great UX design through the broad application of best practices, by following a style guide, or by simply listening to what users want. We achieve great UX design through careful and judicious research and analysis, the creation and validation of designs, and testing and iterating to get things right. It also helps if we can get users to be candid with themselves. Getting to the reality of what users need does not come from speaking with users or their business advocates. Such knowledge comes from watching what users do, how they do it, and, most important, where their painpoints lie.

Dealing with pain every day grinds people down. This is the mental state of most of the users we see during research sessions. However, when you remove that pain, people can suddenly think much more clearly and can start to articulate better the things that would bring delight to a user experience. By first focusing on removing pain, then later focusing on delight, you can get much more candid feedback from users. When users are candid with themselves about what would delight them, they can also be candid with us, as UX professionals, and we can truly help people. 

Senior Director, Technical Solutions and Global Design, at Pegasystems

Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

Baruch SachsWith over 12 years of experience leading and participating in successful efforts to improve user experience across various industries, Baruch has a developed a wide range of skills in the areas of interaction design, user interface development, and product management. For the past 5 years, he has developed and led the global user experience team at Pegasystems and serves as the principal end-user advocate for the Pegasystems Services organization in the delivery of user interface design and user experience to customers and partners.  Read More

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