The UX of Enterprise Applications – What’s So Different? / by Gavin Lau

The UX of enterprise applications has typically lagged behind consumer applications. Look at the way you order a product from Lowe’s or Amazon, and it’s click, click, click, done! That’s what consumers are used to, and it’s reasonable to expect that every digital experience will be simple.

Enterprise applications have significant differences that challenge design simplicity – a challenge that UX practitioners have been working to meet. Enterprise application development can be a paradox. Good design often emphasizes simplicity and ease of use. But how do we achieve simplicity with all the security and technical concerns, business processes, and compromises across business units to consider? These add to the complexity of the design and development process.

Below are some characteristics that differentiate enterprise UX from its consumer counterpart:

• Context of use is different. Business, not pleasure. People use enterprise tools because they have to. Intranets, portals, CRM applications, order entry systems and the like are used by employees and are the only option for completing necessary tasks. Often, these tasks are complicated by required business rules and processes that don’t exist with consumer applications.

• Enterprise applications aren’t “sexy.” Always consider context. Saying that a CRM application needs to be “sexy” is like saying a 90 year-old grandma’s going to the nursing home but needs to shop for a bikini first. Purposeful, efficient design trumps “sexy” every time.

• Stakeholder vision doesn’t always align with user needs. A shared understanding among the UX team and stakeholders about user needs is critical. The need to gather knowledge of user tasks and processes – gathered from actual users, not user proxies or alternates – should not be overlooked. Very often stakeholders will provide input and have never or will never actually use the application. Real user feedback will provide insight so the team can have the same vision.

• Enterprise applications are complex, task-based systems. For enterprise applications are largely task-driven. Tasks are often complex, involving multiple steps with multiple security checks. Multiple departments/divisions have to weigh in. Tasks are seldom isolated, so a holistic understanding of the process and environment is required.

• Personas often include Super Users and Casual Users. Desired functionality and features can differ for each group. For example, with a CRM application, a sales manager might use a sales tool a few times per week, maybe once a day. A sales rep might use the system every day, 4 hours per day. And both likely use the system differently for very different tasks. Even in the same role, there are differences. Some sales reps with more accounts may use the system more, for examples.

• Mobile isn’t always a given. Some tasks are so complex and involve so may steps and checks that completing them on a mobile device would be too cumbersome and time-consuming. In a recent research study I conducted for a manufacturing client, a user said “If I had to enter all of this information on my phone or tablet, I’d shoot myself. I’d never use this tool on mobile.”

Because they are task-based, it makes sense to think in terms of their simplest, most direct execution. However, context of use is key. For example, if an application is only installed and used on desktops in-house and there are no plans to migrate to mobile, there is no need to spend time and resources on a separate mobile experience.

This is not to be confused with the wider value of responsive design where mobile principles are inherent. It’s still smarter to design keeping mobile in mind, even if it is five years down the road.

Enterprise apps have to balance user needs, system capabilities, business rules and stakeholder goals. The discovery phase is key to determine use cases and common scenarios. Talking to users, analyzing tasks, understanding processes all help to set priorities for project work.