What is the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the words: enterprise software? Most likely it’s something bulky, cumbersome, weighty, hard to use, and something that alludes to the drudgery of a job where software seems to block our productive flow, as opposed to fostering it. You might be able to compare it to being in the middle of some fun activity, such as hanging out with a new love interest, and suddenly your ex walks in and throws a stern look your way, making the smile slowly slip away from your face.
Dull user interfaces (UIs) have lost their standings to consumer and entertainment apps that are slick, streamlined and provide fresh content at the swipe of a finger; but enterprise software will not surrender. At times it even seems that these dinosaur-like UIs will never disappear, begging the question: what will finally make them extinct?
Mockery aside, much talk has been going on for some time about how uncomfortable UIs of enterprise software are, and how vendors should start producing more personable UIs for it. No “should” in this world will turn into action, unless there’s some propelling momentum that will make it happen, and that’s exactly why we need to make these improvements.
If we take an X-ray look into the heart of the matter, why do we need a better UX? Is it for pleasure, aesthetic enjoyment, or for the feel of comfort and continuous flow? What is the ultimate element that will dictate development of a better UX?
This primary incentive is called the need for speed. We’re moving away from the era of decade-long projects and yearlong rollouts of IT infrastructures, with obnoxious RFP-based adoptions pushed down the pipe from the top of an organization. Companies that use enterprise software want it to be flexible, adaptable and quick to update, in tune with fast-changing social, technology and business trends. Enterprise software vendors will inevitably have to address these needs and deliver a better UX, making user action flow easier and more intuitive, as well as shortening the times required to retrieve all kinds of reports from the enterprise Big Data.
Focus on visualization would be the essential prerequisite for this “accelerated” UX. The enterprise software of 2014 and beyond has no room for slowness, and UX in enterprise applications is a part of a bigger picture involving many facets. In a nutshell, feedback-based development is turning mainstream for enterprise companies, who demand faster rollouts, faster scalability, faster adoption and ease-of-use. There’s no time for pompous presentations or heavily loaded trainings, where learning how to use a software is similar to musing over scholastic text.
If there’s any example of a positive UX development in the enterprise world that would be Google, of course, with their cloud services that have always offered a smooth UX. Another example that comes to my mind is Salesforce. They make a genuine effort to make UX better for their end-users. They improved their contextual help, making it easier to find answers to “how to do what” questions, and did a face-lift to the UI. Considering the fact that Salesforce is the baby of the 90’s, it’s become generally cleaner and easier-to-use, both for people who enter the sales data, and for the executives who work with the reports generated from this data.
Now, if Google and Salesforce are marching ahead as the pioneers of this enterprise UX movement, how about the mammoth companies? What is the propelling momentum that would finally deliver a slick UX to an average enterprise software user, be it ERP, supply chain management, or project portfolio management?
Enterprise startups are the fireballs to ignite these changes. An enterprise start-up is a company that would create a new generation of easy to adopt, easy to roll out, and easy to use enterprise software, to help organizations get the most of their Big Data, from an analytical perspective, and support adjustments to daily operations, fast. In the mid-2000’s we witnessed an outburst of start-ups that bent over backwards to entertain the hell out of everyone. Start-ups at that time did photo sharing, social sharing, or gamification. But we only have so many resources and time for entertainment.
Some people do not like to overshare, especially in the workplace. Teenagers and young people spend a lot of time with entertainment apps, but they’re not the ones who spend money on software. What’s more relevant for software providers are the serious companies who are ready to pay for new, nice, crisp, usable and fast enterprise products. With the security and reliability of cloud improving, startups would be better off if they apply the power of their genius not to some viral dating app but to a software that would help people do work faster and with comfort.
It may take years but fresh start-ups will shift the paradigm in enterprise UX, emerging as the competitive power to old-school companies, so reluctant to weed their overgrown gardens. It reminds me of the Newton’s first law of motion: “An object at rest stays at rest… unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.” In the case of enterprise UX, this unbalanced force — read, new technology (cloud and mobile) + changing business and social environment (need for speed) — requires start-ups to champion this change. The ball is already rolling.
It won’t help to bombard established enterprise software companies with calls to update their UX and make it more usable. In most cases, they would weigh the costs of a UX face-lift vs. gains from new business and/or keeping old clients, and decide against it. Things will change as this new unbalanced force, the enterprise start-ups, come into play. The conservatives would then have to reckon with them, and either re-invent their identity, steering the updates needed for their software (which is not an easy thing to do), or step out of the game.
*This piece was featured in @Wired on March 28, 2014