3 Tips for Navigating Enterprise UX
We are hearing more and more about Enterprise UX these days. The rise and success of UX and design as a differentiator in our digital experiences has raised the bar. This means that people expect seamless, responsive and beautiful experiences, even from the software and apps they are using at work.
So what exactly is enterprise software? There are a few different definitions, but usually the term refers to:
- Software designed for use by a large company’s employees
- Software designed by an internal team in a large enterprise for use by its employees
- Software that is only used by businesses – such as a Customer Relationship Management system or accounting software.
The Rise of Enterprise UX
The user experience of these systems has typically been led by a technology first approach, driven by data base structures and cost savings. As tools that are not consumer facing, enterprise software can feel like the land UX left behind. In the past, the experience a user had with these systems was often more of a by-product of the software rather than an intended effect.
We are currently seeing an evolution in this space, as legacy systems are now competing with software as a service model companies such as Quickbooks or Asana, which serve individual users as well as large scale enterprise. In tandem with this, mobile applications and responsive design are contributing to an increased focus on better experiences for enterprise users.
“Smart phones and their corresponding apps, with their singular focus on doing one simple thing well, have generated new expectations for business applications: a focused experience based on role and workflow. It requires a complete shift in how we think about enterprise software,” said Karen VanHouten, Principal Information Architect at Infor.
Working and designing in a huge company with thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of employees is no easy feat. Enterprise UX is know for the challenges of restrictive legal and regulatory environments, complex approval flows, and intense bureaucracy. The plus side of practicing UX at enterprise scale is just that, scale. The potential to impact many users and improve the experience of software that they have to use as part of their work is compelling. So what are some of the things that will see you through on your most head-desk of days?
Find Beauty in Complexity
Improving the user experience of enterprise products mean getting into the ring in incredibly complex environments. Best practices are for textbook organizations, and at this scale, each organization brings its own set of complexities, hierarchies and messiness.
Both the beauty and inelegance of enterprise software lies in its scope of complexity. Every time you solve one wicked problem, you uncover ten more, increasingly wicked problems. Designers working in this environment need to be able to work past the frustration and embrace the mess.
Designers that thrive in an enterprise UX setting are the ones who are able to embrace the complexity of both the organization and the software that they are designing. Being able to find the opportunity, beauty and challenge in this environment will be a saving grace to UX designers. Uday Gajendar wrote about his desire to make enterprise beautiful. Know that the complexity gives you really juicy challenges and the possibility of improving things a lot with even small changes. Seek the beauty.
Build Trust with Stakeholders
Ultimately, UX is about people. When building enterprise products, your client is not always your end user. In order to be able to practice UX effectively in this environment, you have to build trust with all of your stakeholders. This includes everyone from your team, to your client, to the dev teams and the end users of the product. Building relationships at this scale is never easy. You may be distributed from the other people you work with. In order to build trust with stakeholders, you need to be able to set your assumptions aside, and truly listen to and understand their contexts. Jordan Koschei wrote in A List Apart: ‘A successful enterprise UX project considers the users’ needs, the clients’ goals, and the organization’s priorities.’
As Karen VanHouten says, empathy as a designer should not be limited to your end users. Have empathy for the people who have to build what you design, and empathy for the executives you work with. Trying to understand people’s pressures and agendas will go a long way to building trust. Are they working towards a Q4 goal? What are the sales cycles? Do the company values emphasize technology first? Listen to your stakeholders, and focus on making them look good. Remember that to gain trust you also have to give trust.
Understand the Data Models
At the core of all enterprise UX are the data models that provide the foundation for the application. This includes the underlying databases, as well as the ways in which data gets displayed, interacted with, used and transferred within the system. Understanding this is a core challenge for the UX designer in an enterprise context.
Enterprise software is all about the data objects, and the user experience has traditionally reflected that – the interface often replicates the structure of the database.
Compared to consumer grade applications, enterprise products often contain vast amounts of interconnected data (there’s that complexity again!). Information architecture and clarity on what information is important to users at what point will help to an experience that moves away from replicating the structure of the database and towards one that is based around user needs, tasks and workflows. Find out what you can about the data model by engaging with all facets of it and asking questions about how various teams see it from their perspective. Build a model of the data model!
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
Working on the UX of enterprise products can feel like a very challenging task at the best of times. It is important to recognize that incremental wins and change are worth celebrating, and that the pace at which the user experience and design of this software can improve may not be the same as what you are used to in consumer facing contexts. However, it is very rewarding to know the scale of impact you can have by persevering. As Karen VanHouten puts it, ‘time gives you traction.’
With special thanks to Karen VanHouten for inspiration and insight.