Building usable enterprise software is fraught with difficulties, even for the biggest companies on the planet. A glance at some egregious enterprise software fails is enough to make even the most experienced usability professionals dry-mouthed: witness SAP’s near-miss take-down of Hershey’s back in 1999, in which a new, unusable distribution system led to an 8% fall over Halloween season; or HP’s centralization of its ERP systems, which cost $160 million in backlogs and lost revenue.
In fact, in 2010 MeasuringU reported that B2B applications had twice the number of usability issues as consumer software, and almost 10 times those found in websites. Enterprise software and usability have not, historically, got along together. These statistics beg the question, when companies are ploughing millions of dollars into software production (1 trillion USD is spent annually on IT, according to IEEE), why does enterprise software still have a reputation as usability’s final frontier? What can designers and developers do to improve the average user’s experience of enterprise software?
This article, inspired by Justinmind’s ebook Making an Enterprise UX Friendly: A Quick Guide, looks at the challenges and opportunities of creating usable enterprise software, and considers how to build usability into the software development lifecycle.
Why Enterprise Software has, until now, Failed on Usability
Enterprise applications are undoubtedly subject to more design and development difficulties than consumer-facing software. Complexity and security are often cited by development teams as the biggest obstacles to creating intuitive systems, and it is not hard to see why: ERP suites, for example, can rack up hundreds of thousands of pages or screens and, consequently, an apparently infinite number of user scenarios. Security concerns about access to information for both internal and external actors means that enterprise systems can end up inaccessible and alienating for the user.
These are not the only roadblocks to usability. A combination of the following often renders enterprise software unusable:
- The software buyer is almost always a C-level exec, not the user. Since they do not have to use the software, they are buying on costs, not usability concerns
- Customization. Sure, developers can test the software they send out onto the market. However, thanks to customization, this is rarely the software employees use. Global enterprises require bespoke software to meet their specialized needs, which effectively negates the possibility of users trying out a software before they buy. This means that usability tests have to be carried out on every single bespoke version. The costs would be eye-watering.
- Historically, enterprises have lacked a UX culture. Without a department to advocate for the user, to organize usability tests or to bind together engineers, programmers, designers and marketers, the users’ needs are forgotten.
- Switching from an unusable software is expensive, so businesses are reluctant to rock the boat. This reduces the pressure on manufacturers – if no one abandons a bad software, where is the impetus to change it?
- Enterprise software has to wrap around extremely complicated processeses, such as manufacturing or global distribution. Nothing can be left to the user’s intuition to solve
- Multiple stakeholders mean multiple priorities, which complicate finding elegantly usable solutions
Thanks to this hefty combination of factors users have long endured “software for corporations, designed by corporations“, as UX Consultant Jon Innes has it. But that is changing.
Usable Enterprise Software Today: Consumerization and Workplace Dynamics
Enterprise software development, like product development in general, is in constant flux due to external factors. In the past couple of years, however, two stand-out trends have emerged that are changing enterprise software for the better: consumerization and workplace dynamics.
There is a lot of buzz around the ‘consumerization’ of enterprise software, and in reality that hype is warranted. The difference between enterprise and consumer software is dwindling all the time, and consumers now use fun, engaging and intuitive software in every element of their lives, from ordering a cab or a pizza to building social communities and networking. In their professional lives they expect, even demand, the same top-notch experience.
Enterprise execs are not blind to the changes happening around them. A 2015 PwC report pointed out that, out of 2000 global executives, almost 75% claimed that UX and human-centric design mattered to them or their business. In addition to this, several consumerization-savvy enterprises have promoted the benefits. Deloitte states that incorporating usability into the redesign of a client’s ERP systems led to a 300% increase in worker productivity, a 55% reduction in training time and a 21% improvement in upsell and cross-sell.
The modern workplace
Changes in workplace ideology and culture also favour a shift towards more user friendly software. The start-up culture wave has washed away old hierarchical structures, and the majority of small, young companies do not have anything resembling a C-suite. This means teams select their own software based on cost and usability. Outside the start-up scene, agile processes also favour quick-to-learn, training-free software packages. Further to this, the rise of schemes such as Bring Your Own Device mean that around 40% of US employees now access enterprise software on their personal devices in the office. Enterprise software that can offer a consumer standard experience is going to steal market share from one that cannot.
How to Create Usable Software for Enterprises
While there is no quick fix for creating usable enterprise software (sadly!), there are opportunities for enterprises to bring the user into the centre of the design/development process.
Be transparent about change
Building a usable piece of enterprise software does not require a one-off commitment; it often requires a wholesale change in company culture. Enterprises that absorb usability into their fabric will bring the user perspective to bear on every tweak, change or update in the future.
Easier said than done, however. “It’s a big shift for companies to adopt this way of thinking and this way of working,” says Lean UX author Jeff Gothelf. “People fear change, they fear for their job, their bonus, their salaries, and if you try to change stuff too quickly without telling them why, they’ll resist.” Breaking down resistance requires above all transparency. “The more transparent you can be about why you’re trying to change and what that change looks like, the more likely you’ll be to drive meaningful impact in your organization,” says Mr. Gothelf.
Build a team focused on the user
Once transparency has been established, it helps to dedicate an in-house team (or at least an individual), to usability and user experience. Oftentimes, this means recruiting a UX team from scratch, which we talk about in Making an Enterprise UX Friendly; but if the budget does not stretch to building a whole new department, talent can be scouted among existing employees. There might be someone on the existing design team who has experience of user research and usability testing, who can establish user-centric processes and evangelize them across already established teams.
User-up, not boardroom-down
There is only one way to create 100% usable software and that is by getting the users involved. While it might not be possible to build the software entirely around user needs first and foremost, users should certainly be involved in the design process. Jeff Gothelf again: “we try to understand the business problem that we’re trying to solve. Baked into that business problem are typically a whole lot of assumptions about who the customer is, what value they might gain from a product or feature, etc. So let us extract those assumptions, and then using those assumptions we create hypotheses – testable statements that help us think about how we can potentially solve this business problem.” It is up to the newly formed enterprise UX team to parse out these user needs from the start of the requirements gathering and development cycle.
UX and usability professionals prioritize users through techniques such as contextual investigation, MVP prototyping, workshops and in-person or remote usability testing. These findings can then align with the priorities of business analysts, the stakeholders and the development team to create a more holistic enterprise software development process.
Start design thinking
Design Thinking is no longer just a buzzword: global enterprises such as IBM and Deloitte are now incorporating Design Thinking into their culture, recruiting teams of dedicated designers and changing the way developers work, all with the aim of creating more intuitive B2B software packages. The Design Thinking process is charmingly simple – design, prototype, iterate – and is repeated as many times as necessary to get to a workable software solution.
Static wireframes can be used to test navigation flows and intuitive information architecture, whereas high fidelity prototypes let users run through the entire gamut of daily tasks in the system and provide feedback. Full on user testing can be run on prototypes even if they do not house the data and information of the eventual software. Design Thinking generates an organic problem solving process, rather than building software to stakeholder spec. As IBM Distinguished Designer Doug Powell puts it, Design Thinking helps “create a user experience for a deeply technical system that a non-technical user can engage with… trying to make tech systems easier to engage with for non- or low-tech users.”
How do you know you have made something Usable? Time to Test
“Usability testing”, according to Oracle, “is a research method for answering the question: Is this product easy to learn and use?” That is a good general description, but it could apply to consumer and enterprise software equally. The difference lies in the organizational experience: testing an enterprise software’s usability requires giving the experience of the organization equal weight as the individual user experience. In 2005, Jakob Nielsen defined enterprise usability as “how the system impacts the company over time, including issues in administration, installation, and maintenance,” and that definition still has relevance over a decade later.
This mix of organizational and individual usability concerns makes testing enterprise software particularly tough. Get it right and the enterprise can make the correct decisions about product readiness for market; get it wrong and an organization can end up mis-spending huge amounts of money.
While enterprise usability testing deserves a dedicated article of its own, it is helpful to give a quick overview of the main techniques an enterprise UX team might apply. The all work goes towards one goal – testing methodically and empirically in order to hunt out defects in the shortest time at the lowest cost.
Imagine designing a consumer website or app that came with a manual and a training day. That would be nothing short of usability disaster. The enterprise sector, however, often produces software complex enough to require user training.
The necessity for training complicates usability testing in the enterprise sector: users cannot just be thrown into testing a hugely complex software without any training, but neither can they be ‘coached’ as that would invalidate usability results.
One way to circumvent this difficulty is to add an element of training into the actual testing process, as Jeff Sauro recommends. Activities such as asking users to repeat tasks more than once, and presenting training materials in different formats allow testers and developers to identify the real usability problems, and disregard issues that will be addressed by in-house training.
All usability professionals should do field studies, or contextual investigation. Without seeing the users ‘in the wild’ it is impossible to gauge true software usability. This is more important on an enterprise level because testers have to monitor both individual and organizational impact of use. Factors such as task completion will have a cumulative impact on bigger issues such as sprint completion while increased or decreased training investment will impact on annual budgets and forecasts, and so on.
The Nielsen Norman group recommend customer roundtables as a good methodology for testing enterprise software. This is because it allows the tester to see above and beyond the individual user and identify organizational factors that may impact on development. Customer roundtables involving administrators and managers open up discussion with “the people who run the organization and and who know the pain points at levels above the individual contributor´s job”. Thus, they break open wider usability issues around product use.
Enterprise Software Usability – the Takeaway
Enterprise software’s days as a usability wasteland are numbered, and the majority of enterprise systems currently in use are ripe with overhaul opportunities. As consumerization and agile working practices filter into even the more traditional workplaces, forward-looking organizations are investing in activities that bring usability and user experience into the enterprise software development process. As challenges diminish and opportunities increase, usability looks set to breach its final frontier.