Why Design Is Important For Enterprise Software

[Contributed by David Wong, originally published on Sagacitas.co | Bulger Partners]

Over the last several days, in my weekends and evenings, I’ve taken up the daunting task of updating my MacBook Air by installing Yosemite OS X and Bootcamp. Although the design of the previous version of OS X was not a major issue, the difference with Yosemite was immediately apparent. As a result of Apple’s move away from skeuomorphism (realism-based design using design clues like 3-D objects, drop shadows and imitation of real-world materials and textures) towards flat design principles, Yosemite comes across as clean, fresh, modern and beautiful.”

After taking a few moments for further reflection, I pivoted from the pleasure of experiencing the Yosemite design to rhetorically asking a fundamental question: Why was there such an enormous gap between the design of software products like Yosemite and that of a typical enterprise software product, which could be charitably called “dated”?  And the related questions: is design important to enterprise software, and is there increasing focus on a design aesthetic in modern enterprise software?

To fully appreciate this situation, one needs to understand that the origins of enterprise software go all the way back to punch cards and green screen interfaces. In fact, several current leading examples of enterprise software can be traced back directly to green screen versions. And, for better or worse, the ethos that emerged from that green screen era still is pervasive today, namely: function over form; rigid structures; defined hierarchies; minimal personalization; non-existent focus on design. In fact, one could easily have the impression that enterprise software organizations relish this ethos and the generally low user NPS (net promoter score — a measure of user satisfaction) surveys that result.  Perhaps it is badge of honor that theirs is serious software.

Yet, the winds of change are upon us.  Spurred by key recent trends like BYOD (bring your own device), the increasing importance of mobility, and the corresponding ongoing arms race of mobile devices and platforms, the ‘consumerization’ of enterprise IT is well underway. As David Sacks proposed in 2011, enterprise design is being affected, with rising expectations for a more consumer, mobile device-like user experience. Similar to my gut reaction to Yosemite, enterprise software users notice the quality of the design and user experience on their various consumer devices and are beginning to question why enterprise software is so archaic by comparison.

But, to be clear, design is more than having a better color palette and nicer fonts (and clearly you could argue that not all consumer apps and devices reflect great stylistic choices).  It is also really about creating a user experience that enhances the effectiveness and efficiency of the software.  Great design is about enabling an experience that is intuitive, engaging and tightly aligned to the work objectives and workflow that the user is managing on a day-to-day basis.  It is about designing software for the user organization’s workflow, rather than redesigning the workflow to accommodate software structure.

All of this would seem obvious and, yet, there are countless examples of enterprise software with rigid, confusing, complex and yes, ugly, user interfaces and experiences that impede the user’s job and productivity. Possibly the clearest indication of this issue is the growth of an entire cottage industry geared toward the training of enterprise software users versus the minimal appearance or complete absence of a user manual that accompanies the typical consumer app or device.

But not all hope is lost. While admittedly many legacy enterprise software applications’ only sign of modernity is the thin veneer of a web interface, there is a new generation of enterprise software emerging, mainly delivered as a service (SaaS), where design is more than a passing concern.  While there still remains a gap between enterprise software and the best-in-class examples from the consumer world, I expect that the number of design-aware enterprise software offerings will increase over time and the quality of their design will improve.

When I think back to my night shift attempts to update my laptop, perhaps nothing exemplifies the gap in design between exemplars and laggards than the different facets of my upgrade experience.  While virtually every part of the Apple upgrade experience was seamlessly and easily executed, including the incredibly intuitive and easy experience of creating and restoring from a Time Machine backup, the process of setting up and configuring the Windows installation in the Bootcamp partition was confusing and overly complex, requiring a level of knowledge that is beyond what the typical user has or should need to have.  Ultimately, as consumer products continue to raise the expectations of users in every market, enterprise software developers will need to make design a priority or risk being disrupted by their more design-focused competitors.

Posted on February 5, 2015 in Insights, Technology Industry