“Meaningful human interactions” aren’t words you usually hear used to describe enterprise software, but those are precisely the words that Sherry Taylor, the Executive Director of Technology for Ticketmaster, uses to describe a software program called Slack. This is indicative of how UX development strategies are fundamentally changing the enterprise world, from SaaS suites to mobile applications.
UX design for enterprises is currently going through a renaissance. Companies such as Slack and Atlassian are changing the expectations of individual users and organizations about the usability and efficiency of large complex software systems, and companies are starting to discover the enormous cost benefits to enterprise systems that improve efficiency with every user interaction. Erik Wingren, the UX lead for Cisco Metacloud and a founding partner at Interactivism, points out that “When you design productivity tools for the enterprise, micro-interactions matter. A few seconds shaved off a work-flow will translate to real savings in productivity when used by thousands of employees. Not to mention how those employees feel after using the product all day long.” In this way, user research and human-centered design methodologies deliver enormous ROI for enterprise applications.
Designing for the enterprise requires not only a keen attention to details in micro-interactions but also an ability to design with data. Kristina Yu, a visual/UI designer and co-founder of Enterprise Tech LA, observes that “As designers, we’re often tasked with making common data-centric elements – such as tables, charts, lists, and forms – both functional and delightful without having to completely reinvent the wheel so that the audience is still familiar with the interactions involved. It is absolutely rewarding when a design integrates well with an existing system and boosts productivity while also providing a positive experience for all users.”
In 2014 when I was working at Webster University, I served on the Technology Steering Committee in charge of redesigning the organization’s enterprise services. I was the only UX designer on the committee, and although the bulk of the endeavor focused on the IT infrastructure, my role was to not just design the UX and UI, but to provide a user-centered approach to a large enterprise system that was more like SaaS suites for multinational corporations than a typical higher education website. This is because of Webster’s size and geographic reach—it has dozens of branch campuses across the United States, as well as international campuses in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Their online services had to work seamlessly and consistently for all users at every campus around the globe.
The benefits of having experienced UX designers involved in the design of the technical infrastructure are multifold, and I credit the CTO of Webster for having the foresight to recognize this. The decisions about what types of IT solutions would be required, how and where LAN servers and routers would be installed, how those would connect to the WAN, and what services would be delivered to what types of devices were all dependent upon what users needed and how they would use them.
One of the primary differences between enterprise systems and consumer products is the number of different types of users and use case scenarios. For example, with a higher education institution such as Webster, you have students, prospective students, faculty, staff, and vendors. Each of these can be broken down further: the needs of first, second, third and fourth year undergraduate students, graduate level students, and part-time students vary from one another. The amount of user research to generate personas for all the user types was vastly greater than it would be for consumer products, and the need for user testing was also far more complex and extensive. UX design methodologies are critical at each stage of the enterprise design process.
Designing meaningful human interactions through design thinking, attention to micro-interactions, and more cogent data interfaces isn’t just a goal for consumer products anymore. Enterprise tech companies are discovering that strong UX is a vital business strategy for increasing efficiency and productivity. To achieve this, you need a UX team that has experience working with big complex systems, can drill down into the details to reduce friction in every interaction and can turn large data sets into meaningful visualizations. In today’s hyper-competitive enterprise world, you can’t afford to not have great UX.