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A No-Compromises User Interface Rarely Gets Built

Selling UX

A unique perspective on service UX

A column by Baruch Sachs
June 14, 2016

Some argue that a UI designer should simply be able to design without having to worry about whether there are technical or business limitations that a design solution should accommodate. The argument, so it goes, is that this is the only way it’s possible to innovate.

Purely from a design sensibility, I am not unsympathetic to this notion. Nevertheless, I do see this purist mentality actually hurting designers’ ability to deliver, especially in the enterprise world.┬áSimply put, when we design without giving any thought to how we’ll actually make something real, we may indeed innovate. However, an innovative concept does not automatically translate into an actual product or application.

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Large-scale enterprises have been waking up to the fact that, to stay competitive and retain top talent, the applications employees use to support the work they’re doing need to be top notch. Whether an internally developed application that, for example, helps drive the procurement process or a purchased application that perhaps enables a customer to open an account or get decisions on coverage quicker, the user experience of such applications needs to be as good as any consumer application they would use to buy a sweater or post a picture for their friends to see.

Recently, digital transformation has swept the enterprise space, with so-called digital UX labs springing up within enterprises. Oftentimes, they act as incubators within the larger organization. They may even have different branding and physical spaces, so seem, at times, to be almost different companies altogether. They attract top design talent—sometimes people with a great design sense, but very little in terms of industry experience. The point is to be innovative and turn the status quo on its head by creating something that is earth-shatteringly different.

So, does this work? Sometimes, if it’s executed well. There are many cases, though, where our own behavior, as designers, and our lack of understanding of the enterprise world actually works against our success. I believe the jury is still out on this—hopefully, for long enough to give the UX community time to take a look at itself and try to ensure that we can succeed in such ventures. To do that, we must start with a better understanding of enterprise User Experience and what challenges and opportunities exist in that world.

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Lather, Rinse, and Repeat

Enterprises love to glom onto the next big thing. They often do it way too late and execute clumsily, then sweep their failure under the rug until the next big thing comes along. There have been many examples of things like workflow, the paperless office, and rapid development, where there was promise that was well worth the risk. Setting up Digital UX teams to design and innovate in a no-compromise fashion seems to be following this same path. Large enterprises have a lot more resources, so can stand these things up, then quickly write them off when they do not deliver results.

However, User Experience cannot get caught up in these fruitless lather, rinse, and repeat cycles that occur within the enterprise world. Enterprise User Experience has a real opportunity to change the culture of an organization—to forge new paths through one of the last, great frontiers of experience design.

This opportunity is not without its challenges. The enterprise world is extremely political and conforming. Large enterprises breed resistance to change, even when the desire to change comes from the very top. It’s not enough to have the CEO of a large company dictate that designs must be better. The vast majority of people within a large enterprise won’t take such a mandate seriously. They’ll believe they can wait things out until they change again. What then happens quite literally undermines and even eats away at the soul of a UX designer who is not as well versed in the nuances of the enterprise.

Imagine you are a bright-eyed UX designer who is excited about the prospect of coming into a corporate environment and actually changing things for the better. You have a chance to design whatever you want, do the user research you need to do, and have a large budget and the time to iterate and test. However, at the end of the development cycle, you don't end up with a product. Why? Many of the reasons have to do with the ability of the technology team to execute on your vision. Maybe the integrations you thought would happen did not or the data model did not support your simple, clean design.

Sometimes, it’s our own arrogance that is our downfall in such endeavors. Recently, I have been engaging with a digital UX team that works for a customer. They are smart people and are truly invested in creating a great application that provides a world-class user experience. However, it’s also true that they never show up to meetings, are always too busy to respond to email messages, and in general, reject the implementations of their vision by both the business and technology teams.

As an outside consultant looking in, I recognize that this type of behavior makes enemies. These enemies are probably people who have been around the enterprise longer than the Digital UX team and who will remain there once the hype around the UX team dies down. These people react to their shabby, arrogant treatment, not just by being annoyed, but with active, subtle resistance. In the end, this type of resistance affects the UX team. It’s a very short distance from designers’ complaining about obstructionists to others perceiving them as the ones blocking progress. This is a lesson that many of these new Digital UX teams are slow to grasp, and this hurts our profession.

The Enterprise UX world is about compromise. While being able to design without constraints may be a fine, lofty goal, the reality, in the enterprise space, is that compromise needs to happen. Everyone needs to recognize that there are data and system complexities that do not exist in the consumer world. That is true for both internally facing applications and externally facing applications. So, while designers may engage in no-compromises UI design with the intent of serving users well, if their designs never actually get built, it is as if they were never designed at all. This is not a legacy that serves anyone well—not the UX community, the actual users, or the enterprise. 

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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