Business apps need a redesign

How to make enterprise software design user friendly

Creating better enterprise software design
  • Business apps are far more complex than consumer apps, one reason why they tend to be clunky and poorly designed
  • Enterprise developers now have the tools to handle the complexity and create seamless front‑end experiences
  • Great app design for business requires a different approach to user research

In a world that’s overflowing with slick, fun‑to‑use consumer apps, many employees are losing patience with lousy software experiences at work.

The signs are everywhere: 75% of employees struggle to find information in enterprise systems. Only 13% of employees describe the apps they use for work as “elegant.” And 45% of 36‑ to 45‑year olds say they would quit their job over hard‑to‑use software.

“People are used to consumer apps, and they expect the same level of experience from enterprise apps,” says Janaki Kumar, the executive director of design with JP Morgan Chase’s commercial real estate platform.

Specifically, they want an intuitive user experience, clean and simple design, and seamless functionality. Unfortunately, these are rare qualities in the apps we use at work. That’s not for lack of trying; the challenge is that enterprise apps typically need to access more data, perform more tasks, and serve more customer types than their consumer counterparts.

Users also need them to function seamlessly on multiple platforms and devices.  (By contrast, consumer apps are increasingly mobile‑first.) It’s hard to do all that while delivering an intuitive, simple and seamless experience, especially when you’re under intense pressure to ship.

“Executives will ask, why is it so expensive or taking so long?” says Natalie Hanson, a partner focused on user experience at management consultant ZS Associates. The answer is that getting enterprise software right is more involved than optimizing a typical consumer app.

Underestimating complexity

Successful consumer apps tend to follow the principle that less is more. Bulky interfaces have given way to clean, simple aesthetics. Tinder, for instance, took over online dating by reducing the interface to a card with a picture, name and age.

Business applications haven’t followed the same path, in part because expectations haven’t always pushed in that direction. “There’s a perception of what enterprise apps look like and that they’re going to be clunky. It’s not like 1‑click buying on Amazon,” says Robert del Prado, a UX strategist at healthcare tech firm Inovalon. “But the perception can become reality, because companies start to think it’s OK.”

Take employee onboarding, for example. Starting a new job means dealing with an exhausting array of paperwork: choosing benefits, figuring out payroll deductions, setting up your new laptop, getting a badge, finding your desk. These tasks involve multiple enterprise functions, including HR, security, facilities and IT.

Many companies shy away from trying to stitch this complex process together digitally, but the technologies are available now to pull it off. “If that whole journey is orchestrated, and along the way we look at how to make it more frictionless, on the first day the employee says wow, this place is awesome,” says Greg Petroff, global head of design at ServiceNow.

According to Petroff, new employees should be able to get everything done in one interface with a simple, consistent design. “The onboarding experience shouldn’t reflect your org chart,” he adds.

Enterprise developers often make the mistake of assuming that employees will want to customize their software. For example, some apps include a menu system that allows modules to be added or removed. While this might sound appealing, it puts the burden on users to try and create the most productive experience for their needs. And the results are rarely successful, says Peter Zalman, a senior manager of product design at McKinsey.

“We had a project where we were hoping people would hide what wasn’t relevant to them, only to realize few people would do that, because they consider the out of the box product to be the ultimate version,” Zalman recalls. Employees not only didn’t customize the app, they didn’t use it at all, repelled by the initial clutter of the interface.

User research remains the starting point of great app design. Consumer app designers often base their work on personas: detailed profiles of users who represent what a product does. But many enterprise designers find personas aren’t enough. “You have a working mom or teenage girl and whatever the problems are that you need to design for,” says Hanson. “In the enterprise, that’s kind of useless.”

A smarter alternative is roles: identifying the jobs that use an app, and how their functions differ. A sales manager and a sales rep might use the same enterprise sales app differently, for example. “If you don’t take the time to understand the users and make sure the top 10 tasks are accessible, you might as well not spend the money,” says Hanson.

At ServiceNow, user research is less about defining personas or roles and more about observing user actions, says Petroff. “We’re focusing on a slightly different idea, which is to understand the moments that matter through your work day and define the best possible process or journey to that moment.”

For example, Petroff’s team conducted user research in call centers and found that  employees repeatedly got snagged on specific steps in their process. “We watched people doing things like using Post‑it notes for context, which is a compliance issue,” says Petroff. “We also learned that fulfillers pride themselves on getting the best answers. If we could surface better answers quickly, their satisfaction levels went up.”

Designers can also focus on getting other project stakeholders engaged in the project. “Prototypes are a great way to engage stakeholders and even executives,” says Zalman. “Then they directly own part of the product or creative process. That helps not only with final adoption, but also with making things faster or more effective.”