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Enterprise User Experience as a Competitive Advantage

December 3, 2018

Most enterprise software is not easy to use. Applications for domains such as content management, customer-relationship management, or business intelligence are rarely examples of UX best practices. The same is true of the Web applications that people access from their company’s intranet. Performing tasks such as logging time into a timesheet, choosing an insurance beneficiary, posting a job, and reviewing job applications can be daunting. These are the sorts of applications employers require their employees to use.

However, people have been performing these common tasks for many decades—since well before the digital age. Why do such tasks so often translate poorly to the digital medium? How can enterprise-software vendors improve their products?

Impacts of the B2B Business Model on User Experience

The shortcomings of enterprise-software user experiences begin with the way companies sell such products. In business-to-business (B2B) purchasing decisions, a salesperson or team generally makes a sale to a customer. Typically, the buyer is not the actual user of the product in question.

An organization, or enterprise, identifies an important business need and allots a substantial budget to address it. The organization spends a good deal of time and effort qualifying business needs, identifying possible vendors, creating RFPs (Requests for Proposals), vetting vendors’ responses, scheduling and sitting through vendor pitches, driving consensus toward the ultimate solution, and, ultimately, purchasing a product. They also spend significant time and resources drafting a vendor contract, paying the vendor, implementing—and perhaps customizing—the product, and training users.

While the software user experience may be a contributing factor in choosing a vendor, organizations rarely involve the users who will be impacted by the decision to purchase the software. In stark contrast to the business-to-consumer (B2C) model, the concerns of actual users are not really a priority when purchasing enterprise solutions.

As a consequence, the UX teams that support enterprise products are usually small—if they exist at all—and many lack power. Typically, there is an Engineering-led development process, in which developers often make UX-design decisions—acting as designers in addition to their other responsibilities.

But, if a design change affects how the user interacts with the product, a UX professional should at least review that change. Preferably, a UX professional should design the entire user experience. Changing settings, deciding what rows of data should appear in a table, and the creation of labels for buttons or links should all be viewed through a UX-design lens.

However, most of these developers are familiar with neither the user’s goals nor UX best practices. They are even less likely to consider individual design changes within the context of a larger design system. Developers have different problems to solve that are not necessarily complementary. With or without the direction of UX designers or design documentation, they need to build a solution. The lack of such direction typically results in explicit or implicit UX-design decisions that are less than optimal.

This situation can also lead to misguided technology and software-architecture decisions. For example, if developers do not know how a particularly complicated task should scale, they may build a system that becomes very difficult to change or even manage. Plus, when no one is really responsible for UX design, the need for a lot of costly rework may result. Questions that remain unaddressed up front often reveal themselves as gaps during the build process—sometimes very large gaps.

The issues don’t end here. Poor, confusing designs lead to extended communications with quality assurance, additional documentation to explain how to use unconventional interactions, training to teach users how to use the software, and support calls when those users inevitably get stuck. The costs of a bad user experience are both incremental and cumulative. So an unempowered or nonexistent UX team can add significant overheads in time and money.

Simply put, it costs more money if a company underfunds or ignores User Experience. From development to testing to training to support, inconsistencies and incongruities gather mass—like a snowball rolling downhill—as the company wastes costly person hours and adds both technical and UX debt—which soon becomes real financial debt—at each stage in a development cycle.

In the end, the customers who purchase enterprise software bear the burden of such costs. Regardless of whether they are aware of it, they must pay for their employees to learn how to navigate unnecessarily complex, nonstandard design solutions. Their employees may also waste countless hours as they try to navigate such flawed solutions. Ultimately, they may need to request help from Support to accomplish their tasks.

User Experience as a Differentiator in the Enterprise Space

Of course, not all enterprise-software companies consider user experience only as an afterthought. There are some companies that invest in User Experience and empower their UX researchers and designers to help create better products. In a domain that is full of solutions that are difficult to use, the benefits of a well-designed user experience are obvious: cost savings for both the enterprise company and its customers.

What if enterprise companies that have institutionalized User Experience marketed their investment in User Experience as a competitive advantage? Simply making prospective customers aware of the costs that are associated with a poorly designed product and providing assurances of a rigorous, user-centered design and development process would seemingly go a long way. Plus, investing in User Experience provides the opportunity to look beyond cost savings to actually help generate revenue.

How to Improve the User Experience of Enterprise Software

To bring truly meaningful, systemic change to User Experience in an enterprise-focused company, you need an executive leadership team that understands the potential impacts and consequences of delivering optimally designed enterprise products. Convincing just a single executive-level leader through a small project that is well documented and scoped could lead to significant change.

Placing strategic focus on universal and standard functions and features is a great place to start. For example, my team serves the IT Service Management (ITSM) industry. Our primary product is an IT support-desk ticketing system. Support teams spend most of their time documenting and analyzing customer issues, so there are a lot of forms for data collection.

By considering well-established UX research on form design in light of key performance indicators (KPIs) for our users—support representatives and their managers—we’re able to stress to our management just how critical it is that support representatives be able to get through a given form with as little friction as possible. In fact, we measure the performance of individual representatives, which is a big factor in how our customers determine resource allocation and employee performance.

Many of the legacy forms in our core product had multi-column layouts. To some, this might seem like a common-sense way of making the most of the available screen real estate, but plenty of extant research demonstrates that multi-column forms actually slow users down.

Baymard Institute is a fantastic resource for usability-study findings, and they’ve published a study on multi-column forms. According to their research, users often misinterpret how to use multi-column forms and in ways that differ. Some users think they should work from left to right, all the way down the page. Others think they should fill out one entire column, then the next. Still other users assume the second column is optional, as Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1—Results of Baymard Institute testing of multi-column forms
Results of Baymard Institute testing of multi-column forms

Image source: Baymard Institute

Luke Wroblewski, UX expert and now a Google product director, wrote Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks, relying extensively on original eye-tracking research and drawing similar conclusions regarding horizontally aligned field labels and single-column layouts. Matteo Penzo also conducted eyetracking studies and presented similar findings regarding label placement and alignment in his UXmatters article “Label Placement in Forms.”

Prior to conducting any original UX research, we were able to identify a fairly serious UX-design issue that had a big impact on our customers’ KPIs. Reporting this issue to our Product and Engineering colleagues and presenting an alternative solution helped us build their trust in User Experience. Because forms are ubiquitous within our flagship product, our research demonstrated how User Experience can have a positive impact on business objectives.

Now, at least part of our product is working well for everyone. Our UX team has created standards for form design. Our developers know these standards, so building new forms requires less communication, there’s less confusion, and less cruft gets built into forms. Quality Assurance also knows these standards, so they can focus on building scripts that test whether forms function according to specifications. Plus, our Training team no longer has to train users on how to use the most common interaction elements in the digital space. All of this leads to fewer design-related calls to our Support team.

Ultimately, User Experience helps users do their jobs more efficiently and our software better meets the needs of the businesses they work for. Not only do users spend less time trying to understand how to create a support ticket, they spend less time performing this task, which improves their performance on their own KPIs.

No enterprise vendor should simply accept as fact that their software is inherently complicated and hard to use. Instead, they should embrace every opportunity to make their software less complicated and easier to use by hiring qualified UX professionals to ensure that they’re delivering high-quality user experiences and by leveraging standard design elements that adhere to best practices. This is the only way to avoid adding more technical and UX debt to their product and putting more strain on their customers. It all comes down to saving time and money, and that’s in everyone’s best interest. 

Director of User Experience at Cherwell Software

Denver, Colorado, USA

Chris PaddockChris has been researching and designing digital product experiences for over twenty years. He has built teams, applications, and processes for startups, not-for-profits, and Fortune 500 companies, including Bank of America, Fidelity Investments, Sallie Mae, and Virgin Pulse.  Read More

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