The Differences Between Enterprise and Consumer UX Design

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A column by Janet M. Six
January 23, 2017

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our expert panel discusses the key differences between UX design for enterprise applications and consumer applications. Among these differences is the fact that most enterprise users have their applications chosen for them, while consumers have freedom of choice and buy their own applications. While actual users may have the opportunity to define requirements for and evaluate enterprise applications, personas represent the target users of consumer applications, and the people who test them merely resemble those target users.

Enterprise applications typically have much greater scope and are much more complex than consumer applications, so enterprise solutions are often tailored for people working in specific roles. Plus, enterprise applications are designed for a specific business domain rather than a specific task, as many consumer applications are. Administrators usually configure enterprise applications, while consumers configure their own applications. Employees routinely use enterprise applications in their work, while the use of most consumer applications is less predictable. Enterprise applications often must connect with legacy systems.

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Many companies set the bar higher for the design of consumer applications, while the design of enterprise applications often lags behind—especially the design of internal applications. The costs of poorly designed enterprise applications have huge negative impacts on the businesses that implement them, while both enterprise and consumer products contribute to the bottom line of the companies that create them. Thus, our expert panel also explores the true costs of enterprise solutions—considerations such as users’ efficiency and effectiveness, engagement versus low employee morale, and learnability versus high training and support costs.

In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our experts answer our readers’ questions about user experience matters. To read their answers to your question in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, just send your question to: [email protected].

  • Mark Baldino—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Chief UX Strategist at Strategic UX; Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Peter Hornsby—UX Manager at Distribution Technology; UXmatters columnist
  • Ben Ihnchak—Co-Founder at Fuzzy Math
  • Caroline Jarrett—Owner and Director at Effortmark Limited; UXmatters columnist
  • Jordan Julien—Founder of Hostile Sheep Research & Design
  • Robert Reimann—Principal Interaction Designer at PatientsLikeMe; Founding Director and first President of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); Co-author of About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design
  • Janet Six—Principal at Lone Star Interaction Design; UXmatters Managing Editor and columnist

Q: What are the key UX design differences between enterprise and consumer applications?—from a UXmatters reader

Designing Enterprise Versus Consumer Applications

“Within a business, an IT (Information Technology) department may choose to build or buy applications for enterprise users, who usually do not get to choose what applications they use,” answers Pabini. “The customer and the user are different people. However, if IT’s decision is to build, the development team may involve actual users in defining the requirements for an application; if to buy, users may be able to participate in an application’s configuration or even define customizations that they require from a vendor. In contrast, consumer applications must appeal to people who both purchase and use them. In either case, the goal should be to satisfy the needs of users. However, in many cases, there is still a gulf between the greater degree to which consumer applications achieve this goal and its lesser degree of attainment for enterprise applications.

“Sadly, many enterprise applications are still among the worst applications on the market. Employers who purchase enterprise applications really should consider the negative impacts of choosing a badly designed application:

  • inefficiency—This, of course, translates into costs. Why would an employer want to make work take more time than it should and reduce workers’ productivity? Worst case, they’ll have to hire more people than they would otherwise need. Which generally costs more: people or software? You guessed it: people!
  • high training costs—Poorly conceived and designed applications are difficult to learn and use, so require much more training.
  • inability to accomplish work—When software is unusable, people may literally be unable to do their jobs. If an application is hard to learn and use, infrequent users won’t remember how to use it, so will likely need refresher courses or help from their coworkers who are expert users. Of course, when expert users spend a lot of time helping their coworkers use an application, this negatively impacts the productivity of the people who do know how to use it.
  • high support costs—When an application’s usability is poor, employees often need to contact Support for help in figuring out how to use it.
  • low employee morale—There’s nothing quite so demoralizing as feeling incapable of doing one’s job, which might threaten one’s livelihood. Plus, many people get very upset about having to use crappy tools. (I sure do. It’s really frustrating!) Of course, this reduces their productivity further.

“However, there are a few enterprise-application and platform developers that are now striving to deliver extraordinary experiences—for example, Salesforce. They’re helping the companies that are part of their ecosystem to deliver well-designed, consistent applications using their Lightning Design System. Designing any enterprise system requires deep knowledge of the relevant business domain or ecosystem—tools for sales teams, in the case of Salesforce.

“While enterprise applications are generally much more complex than consumer applications, a UX designer should minimize the impact of that complexity on users,” advises Pabini. “You should always try to make any system as simple as possible—though never simpler than it really needs to be. One way of achieving greater apparent simplicity is by revealing functionality only when a user needs it. Sometimes you can accomplish that by creating a role-based user interface, so particular users see only the functionality they need. Often, achieving simplification means battling featuritis to eliminate functionality that users don’t really need—or better, to avoid adding it in the first place. If your organization develops an enterprise application or system, your solution should enable the IT departments that implement it for your customers’ organizations to configure the software to meet specific users’ needs. For enterprise customers, configuration capabilities are preferable to customizations, which usually make it difficult—or even impossible—to upgrade to a new version of an application.

“Designing consumer applications is generally less challenging than designing enterprise applications because of consumer applications’ relative simplicity. The focus is on meeting the needs of particular users in a particular context really well. Although UX designers who design consumer applications often pay greater attention to delighting users and crafting beautiful user interfaces, enterprise users deserve this extra effort just as much—and perhaps they need it more when you consider the challenges inherent in navigating the complex workflows of enterprise software.”

Dealing with Complexity Versus Simplicity

“One of the biggest differences between enterprise and consumer applications is that most users of enterprise applications don’t have a choice about using them,” replies Robert. “Their employer is telling them to do so. Furthermore, the people purchasing the application may not know—or care—much about exactly how all the users will be using it. In an ideal world, perhaps they might, but in reality, not so much. People using enterprise applications are not doing so for their enjoyment or edification; they are doing so because their job requires them to—whether they like it or not. Frequently, enterprise users use these applications all day long. Enterprise users seldom have high expectations for their applications, but may become deeply resentful if the applications don’t allow them to get their job done effectively. Enterprise users will even subvert or work around applications that make their lives too difficult.

“Contrast this with consumer applications that users have made a conscious choice to engage with—perhaps after researching and comparing products—and have commensurate expectations. Consumer users want to feel that a product is worth the time and money they’ve spent on it, likely have an emotional connection to whatever they’re doing with the application, and might even have aspirations for a future life goal that they—consciously or unconsciously—hope the application will help them achieve.

“Enterprise applications are, almost by definition, significantly more complex than most consumer applications,” continues Robert. “They need to support many simultaneous users and job functions at scale. They need to be highly secure. They need to connect deeply into other—often legacy—enterprise systems and databases. They must simultaneously be generic and deeply customizable—by administrators or installers. They need to log transactions that support tracking and accountability. This typically means that an organization must pay a great deal of attention to administration user interfaces that include security and permissions, logging, customization, data backup, recovery, and transfer.

“Enterprise applications usually partition their functionality along the lines of job roles—for example, manager, individual contributor, and HR specialist roles for a human resources application. Each job function has its own sets of user interfaces and functions, and an administrator usually manages permissions centrally, using an admin user interface. People in different roles often have workflows and data flows that connect them. Enterprise applications represent an entire system of user interfaces and interactions that enable business goals.

“In contrast, most consumer applications are generally simple and have a single function—for example, the camera app on your iPhone—with the exception of creative or authoring tools that have many functions and highly configurable user interfaces—for example, Adobe’s Creative Suite. Complex configuration also exists in enterprise applications, but administrators or installers usually do this configuration at the time of deployment, using a specialized admin user interface, rather than individual users. Consumer applications may link many users together—for example, gaming and social-networking applications—but the complexity of their interactions is typically simpler and less demanding than those in the enterprise, and they ultimately focus on the goals of individual users or groups.

“What all this means for UX design is that designing enterprise applications requires great attention to workflows and making certain that the needs of each user role match up well with the way the application flows from task to task—both within and between user roles,” says Robert. “This usually requires extensive insight into the domain in which the application is being used. On the consumer side, understanding user motivations and goals is key. This is also helpful for enterprise applications, but is not the primary consideration because it’s possible to differentiate a product by addressing a particular set of compelling and under-met needs in the market. Consumer applications don’t need to be all things to all people—and shouldn’t try to be. Rather, designers should choose a primary target user type, or persona, and try to support their goals in a unique, elegant, and innovative fashion.”

The Routine Use of Enterprise Applications

“Back in the days before we all used the Internet—let’s say, any time in the last century—user-centered design focused, mostly, on the world of work—what we’d now call enterprise applications,” answers Caroline. “A few UX professionals looked at how consumers and citizens used things like kiosks or paper forms, but the majority of our efforts went into trying to improve the computer systems people used within organizations. If you look at the original System Usability Scale (SUS), it includes the statement: ‘I found the various functions in this system were well integrated.’ This statement makes a lot of sense if you’re assessing an enterprise application and use various aspects of it in variable proportions throughout a working day.

“This leads to one of the key differences between enterprise and consumer applications: When you’re working on an enterprise application, you’re designing for people who are likely to use it day in, day out. They learn it—or at least they learn the parts of it that are most relevant to their particular work. Efficiency starts to become a crucial consideration. A few extra clicks or keystrokes to get a job done aren’t important for a consumer who will use your application maybe once a month, but become a major consideration for someone who uses an application dozens of times a day.

“My favorite tool for understanding the tradeoffs is Whitney Quesenbery’s ‘Using the 5Es to Understand Users.’ In it, she compares the following:

  • Effective—getting the job done
  • Efficiency—the amount of resources and time you need to get the job done
  • Engaging—how pleasant and satisfying an application is to use
  • Error Tolerant—whether it prevents mistakes
  • Easy to Learn—how fast users become efficient

“One example of these tradeoffs: designing the wording of labels in forms. For a consumer application, it’s crucial for the user to be able to understand the question in the label straight away, so it’s often worthwhile to opt for a longer question that’s entirely clear at a glance. But for an enterprise application, the user may be seeing that label dozens of times a day—so a far more abbreviated label might help you to put more things on the screen, giving an overall improvement in efficiency, but sacrificing some learnability.

“That’s not an excuse to make enterprise applications horrible to learn on the basis of ‘we can fix that in training.’ Whether you’re designing an enterprise application or a consumer application, you’ve got to make exactly the same investment in really understanding your users and getting them to test whatever you design.”

“To build on Caroline’s response, one good way of balancing efficiency and learnability is to create a user interface that initially does more hand-holding, then become less intrusive once a user has more experience with the application,” responds Pabini. “For example, some applications display a transparent page overlay to new users, with arrows pointing to key elements on the page, explaining what they’re for. Some more complex applications provide a tour to get users started. Once new users have become a bit more familiar with a user interface, getting clarity doesn’t require long labels.”

“While there are exceptions, enterprise solutions are generally larger in scope and scale—more people, data, and transactions,” adds Mark. “Therefore, enterprise software providers are naturally more hesitant to roll out large-scale changes to a user interface or an overall user experience. As UX designers, we need to be patient—perhaps making a series of small, tactical changes over time instead of calling for a large, quick, strategic shift. It’s okay to start small. But when you find the right opportunity to make a big change, socialize it far and wide.”

Who Decides to Buy the Application?

“The people who purchase enterprise solutions are not the same people who must use them every day,” points out Mark. “Users in the enterprise have little to no purchasing power, while users in the consumer market have all the purchasing power. This affects how we elicit requirements, design and roll out software, and gather feedback. Because of the long delay between the sale of an enterprise solution and its roll out, it takes much longer for an enterprise-software provider to respond to users’ needs.”

“In a perfect world, only the user’s ability to choose to use an application would differ between enterprise and consumer applications,” replies Ben. “More often than not, the use of enterprise tools is mandatory for the people using them, while there is a world of choices available to consumers. The same person who’s using mandatory tools at work is probably going home and choosing to use Amazon to shop. Ideally, both of these experiences would share metaphors, iconography, and other fundamental UX elements. Successful consumer applications focus on solving the goals of the people who use them. In contrast, many enterprise applications are successful because they demo well to the folks with purchasing power—even though they often provide a substandard experience for the people using them.”

The True Cost of Ownership

“There are a couple of ways in which I could interpret this question, but I’m going to choose to look at design as a process rather than at the design that gets implemented,” states Peter. “Something I’ve observed is that, when a company is designing an application for its own, internal use, it’s common to see far less effort go into the design of the user interface. In part, this may happen because of decision makers’ being too close to the problem the application is trying to address. Some may take the view that, because an application is for internal use, they already know the people who will use it. In fact, they’ll be using it themselves, so there’s no need to spend all that time making personas and doing wireframes. They can always slap on some training and sort out the user experience later. Internally facing applications don’t bring in revenue. Not surprisingly, I disagree with this view!

“Here the concept of visible and invisible costs comes into play. User Experience always has a visible cost, but for a consumer application, it also has a visible payback. However, for an internal enterprise application, no money changes hands, so the emphasis is always on bringing development costs down. Therefore, the goal of the UX team should be to focus on making the cost of ownership very clear: a poor user experience leads to spending more money on training and users’ taking more time to complete tasks using the application; and these costs multiply over the lifetime of the application.”

Is There Really a Difference Between Consumer and Enterprise Applications?

“The differences between enterprise and consumer applications have almost disappeared,” asserts Jordan. “Consumers have demanded the professional features of enterprise applications, and enterprises have demanded the simplicity of consumer applications. However, enterprise applications tend to offer more features to provide business intelligence, workflows, collaboration, and productivity-management capabilities. So enterprise applications still tend to be more complex than consumer applications. This often leads UX designers to use more hide-and-peek design patterns. The intent of these patterns—such as tabs, accordions, and carousels—is to make large data sets or amounts of content more digestible.”

Business Impacts of Enterprise Applications

Something that stood out to me, in perusing the content our experts contributed to this column, is that much of the discussion has focused on enterprise applications. This leads me to believe that, despite all the attention companies are placing on User Experience, the UX design of enterprise applications is generally lacking and lagging far behind that of consumer applications. As mentioned earlier, enterprise users rarely pick their own applications, yet the effectiveness of these products has a tremendous impact on the quality of their work. Why do some companies have a hard time improving the user experience of their enterprise applications—despite their awareness of the potentially large, negative impacts that result from design issues? I suggest one reason could be that, despite the lip service companies give to User Experience, many companies still do not see the connection between a better user experience and higher profits. And, even when companies do understand that a better user experience is necessary, UX designers might not know how to improve it within the time, financial, and technical constraints the company imposes. These constraints include the need to integrate well with legacy systems, which can greatly impede progress in moving toward modern user interfaces.

As User Experience continues to grow and evolve as a field, I hope more designers come to understand that the business side of a product company is not the enemy. Not only should we endeavor to deliver holistic design solutions that consider the user, but we must also take a holistic look at how a user experience affects business results. While there has been much discussion on how to improve application user experiences, how to integrate a new design solution with the well-established parts of a company and understand its impacts is less well understood. So I hope more UX designers will consider that the products they design are part of a much larger picture. 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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