What do you think of when you hear the term enterprise UX? Designing corporate Human Resources (HR) systems or intranets? Many articles and books for UX professionals focus on designing Web sites and mobile applications for consumers. But what about the silent majority of users in the workplace who are trying to get their job done? Many of them think of enterprise software as the generally sub-par tools that companies force them to use.
However, over the past few years, enterprise UX has started to get more attention from user-experience thought leaders. (There’s even a conference dedicated to it.) But what does enterprise UX actually mean? From what we’ve observed, it seems that there is not yet an agreed-upon definition of this term. This fuels confusion about enterprise UX, why it matters, and what scope it encompasses. Therefore, in our first column on this topic, we’ll
provide a working definition of enterprise UX
describe a few of the many environments in which enterprise UX makes a difference
identify obstacles to designing and developing great enterprise software
In future columns, we’ll focus on ways UX professionals can successfully navigate the challenges of designing enterprise UX.
What Is Enterprise UX?
Both of us have several years of experience working in what most would consider enterprise-UX environments. But before embarking down the path of writing this column, we decided to do some research. (This is UXmatters, after all!) Over several weeks, we interviewed experts across the UX community, including consultants who design for a diverse clientele, authors of UX books, UX leaders in large organizations, and other UX professionals with a wealth of experience. While we enjoyed some spirited conversations and gathered enlightening feedback, it became clear that there is no consensus on how to define enterprise UX. During the course of these interviews, people defined enterprise UX as designing user experiences for
large-footprint software for internal functions such as HR and accounting systems, customer-relationship management (CRM), vendor management, and others
Clearly, the term enterprise UX is suffering an identity crisis. We found that there are many assumptions about what it is, which leads to phrases such as, “I know it when I see it,” but the reality is that UX professionals don’t all see enterprise UX the same way.
Since one of our goals for this column is to explore the reality of designing great software experiences for the enterprise, we believe it is critical to make sure that we use a consistent definition for this term.
In our view, enterprise UX is not limited to internal corporate systems. It’s a vast universe that includes any software that helps workers to do their job. Here is our definition of enterprise UX: The design of products for people at work.
Where Can Enterprise UX Make a Difference?
Perhaps the better question is: where can’t enterprise UX make a difference? Enterprise software is everywhere—often in places you might not realize.
For example, the healthcare industry is chock full of software applications that manage electronic health records, patient billing, and more. When you visit your doctor’s office, you are probably ushered into an exam room where someone inquires about your symptoms. In the past, medical professionals may have taken notes on paper or perhaps just kept the information in their head. But today, they usually enter important information about your health into a software application.
Sadly, many of these applications fall far short of the bar we would set for a positive user experience. Few of these tools are known for providing exceptional user experiences. In his article, “Healthcare Design Is About More Than Aesthetics,” author Chris Kiess observes that, in general, the healthcare industry suffers from a dearth of UX professionals. As a result, poor experiences abound.
Kiess points out that making a mistake when using healthcare software can have potentially tragic consequences. User interfaces such as that shown in Figure 1 make us realize how easy it might be for a busy healthcare professional to make a fatal mistake when performing a critical task such as entering prescription dosages. A medical software vendor designed this software. Enterprise UX can make massive impact in the domain of healthcare—and many others.
Consider the factories around the world that make everything from the sheets you sleep in, to the soap you wash with, to the car you drive to work. As Jonathan discussed in his three-part series for UXmatters titled “UX for the Industrial Environment,” even in the age of automation, the factory floor is more human than you might think, and the people who work there are happier and more productive with efficient, effective, and satisfying software applications. But, in far too many cases, these workers end up using poorly designed solutions that force them to create their own workarounds.
But the scope of enterprise software—and the opportunity for enterprise UX to make a difference—is not limited to large enterprises such as hospitals and automobile plants. It extends its considerable reach into the world of small businesses as well. For example, residential real estate is a huge business, with 5,510,000 home sales in the United States in 2017. But much of its workforce comprises independent agents who work for a variety of brokerages, large and small. So, despite the size of the industry as a whole, these agents are saddled with frustrating, outdated software experiences—such as the user interface from a real-estate software vendor shown in Figure 2—that can actually hamper their ability to remain productive and competitive.
According to Chris Olsen, owner of Olsen Ziegler Realty in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the main issues for real-estate professionals is that many of the vendors who develop the more cost-effective home search and lead-management software solutions don’t bother to include any UX professionals in the design and development of their products.
“Many lower-priced vendors have a very basic approach where it looks like a software developer designed the user interface. These interfaces are reminiscent of a 1990s Windows application designed in Visual Basic. The poor UX of these products directly contributes to potential clients looking elsewhere, which no independent agent can afford.”—Chris Olsen
Modern, consumer-facing real-estate portals have only exacerbated the issues that independent agents face. Olsen continues, “After all, there are well-known consumer-facing portals such as Zillow, Trulia, Realtor.com, and Redfin. They have achieved wide adoption for making searching for homes very efficient, easy, and fun. The bar has been set very high.”
Figure 3 shows an example of a home-search results page that a real-estate software vendor developed for a small brokerage. It probably isn’t causing any sleepless nights for executives at Zillow or Trulia.
Clearly, there is great value in empowering the medical professionals who help keep us healthy, factory workers who produce valuable goods, small-business owners who don’t have deep pockets, and countless others. Nevertheless, consumer-focused Web sites and mobile applications continue to garner the greatest UX investment and recognition. Why is this? While the reasons are many—some not relating solely to User Experience—there are some unique challenges that UX professionals tend to face when working on enterprise software, including the following:
Enterprise software is usually highly specialized and complex. These can be massive products that experts use for several hours every day to get critical work done. UX designers and researchers working in enterprise domains face a steep learning curve.
The user and the customer are rarely the same person. The customer who decides to purchase enterprise software is not usually the person who ends up using it. Vendors sell their wares to boardroom executives, not to the workers who must use their products daily. Conducting UX research to better understand enterprise users comes with its own set of obstacles—such as difficulties getting access to workers in the field, legal concerns about intellectual property, salespeople who own the customer relationship, and more. Doing guerrilla usability testing in a coffee shop will almost never be an option.
The contexts of use and needs of the enterprise user are very different from those for consumer-facing applications. Today, the design of so much software assumes that users will be popping in and out of it. But the design of many enterprise solutions must assume a deeper level of focus and greater time commitment from the user. Plus, the concept of simplification—which often masquerades as the subtraction of unnecessary features in business-to-consumer (B2C) apps—doesn’t map as cleanly to enterprise software. For workers, who might spend 20–40 hours per week using enterprise applications, hiding features under the guise of simplification can be detrimental to their product mastery, something we’ll explore in future columns. Also, the idea of releasing a minimum-viable product (MVP) as an early version of an application is rarely feasible in the enterprise space. There are certain functionality requirements that are non-negotiable for these users. Asking them to use a half-baked solution to get real work done would be neither fair nor realistic.
There is less competition for enterprise vendors and a higher barrier to entry. As a result, bad experiences often already have a foot in the door—and, in some cases, have taken up permanent residence in many industries. A lack of competition often translates to very little UX investment because design has no perceived value. However, workers now have so much exposure to good user experiences—through the applications they use in their personal lives—that they have far less patience with bad user experiences at work. This is particularly true for enterprise mobile applications, which sit side by side with Google Maps and Twitter, so users can’t help but notice the difference.
Legacy solutions may seem comfortable. In many cases, established enterprise-software vendors risk cannibalizing the success of their own legacy products—which might still be profitable—when salespeople show customers newer products with better experiences. As a result, sales departments are often disincentivized to advocate for a better, more modern product experience out of fear that it might harm sales for the old product they must keep afloat. Plus, given the high cost of transitioning to new software products, customers in many industries fall back on the old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset.
How Can You Impact Enterprise UX Projects?
Exploring this question is why we decided to write this column. Our goal is to provide an enterprise-UX field guide of sorts, offering practical tips and examples that can help UX designers navigate the challenges that abound in this space. We’ll delve into a wide range of topics, including these:
getting outside the organization to access enterprise workers
maximizing learnings where user-research opportunities are scarce
selling UX up the chain in your company
championing user experience on engineering-centric teams
addressing offline workflows in unexpected environments and contexts
You may be new to designing enterprise solutions, or perhaps you’ve been designing them for several years, waging the wars of enterprise UX alone or with a small group of fellow UX designers. Regardless of your familiarity with the space, we think you’ll find value in the information we plan to share. We’ll write about what we’ve learned through experience and observation, and we invite you to join us on this journey. Please engage with us by sharing your comments. We welcome your feedback and encourage you to suggest topics for us to cover. How do you define enterprise UX? What are some lessons you’d like to share?
Director of User Experience at Rockwell Automation
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Jon has a degree in Visual Communication Design from the University of Dayton, as well as experience in Web development, interaction design, user interface design, user research, and copywriting. He spent eight years at Progressive Insurance, where his design and development skills helped shape the #1 insurance Web site in the country, progressive.com. Jon’s passion for user experience fueled his desire to make it his full-time profession. Jon joined Rockwell Automation in 2013, where he designs software products for some of the most challenging environments in the world. Jon became User Experience Team Lead at Rockwell in 2020, balancing design work with managing a cross-functional team of UX professionals, then became a full-time User Experience Manager in 2021. In 2022, Jon was promoted to Director of User Experience at Rockwell. Read More
Lead User Experience Researcher at Rockwell Automation
Cleveland/Akron, Ohio, USA
Over the last two decades—as a researcher, interaction designer, and information architect—Chris has helped shape products for a wide variety of companies and industries. He has worked at startups, consulting firms, and Fortune 500 companies, in domains that include mortgage finance, insurance, ecommerce, and industrial automation. At Rockwell, his work impacts the design of software that powers factories producing automobiles, food and beverages, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, diapers, and just about anything else imaginable. As a researcher, Chris employs a wide variety of methods to discover user needs and expectations and drive product strategy. Curiosity, critical thinking, and storytelling guide him on every project. Outside of work, Chris is a music / pop-culture nerd and a voracious reader who uses his store of useless knowledge to compete in an online trivia league. His happy place is right next to the stage in a small club, watching live music. Read More