I've worked on a lot of enterprise software projects over the years, and one of the common patterns I've observed is a surprisingly high tolerance for poor user experience.
If you've ever worked in a cubicle farm, you're probably all too familiar with the baffling HR systems, the agonizing time-tracking software, and the intranet site so confusing that nobody bothers to actually use it. These things are just an accepted part of life inside large companies.
How Did We Get Here?
A key contributor to poor user experience design in enterprise software is the presence of a captive audience. In the minds of many decision makers, the software simply doesn't need to be well designed because employees will be forced to use it anyway, whether they like it or not.
In addition, these kinds of purchasing decisions tend to be made based primarily on features and platform rather than the overall user experience. I've seen six-figure software decisions made without ever seeing a screenshot, simply because it met the defined technical and functional requirements (none of which included "Must not make users hate their lives").
The software manufacturers themselves may not feel much incentive to invest much time or effort improving user experiences, because they may already have a corner on the market. The more specific the tool to an industry, the less likely it is to be designed well, because that tool is probably "the one that everyone uses" and isn't likely to be knocked off its throne anytime soon.
The Hidden Cost of Bad User Experiences
All that said, both software firms and the large companies they serve are quickly starting to realize that these excuses just don't cut it anymore.
From the company's perspective, executives are beginning to realize that telling people to use a software tool isn't actually the same as having them actively use it, as evidenced by the knowledge management ghost towns, abandoned wikis, and incomplete data records found on corporate intranets around the world. If software usage is painful or confusing, even an executive order may not be enough to make it actually happen.
I saw this for myself while trying to manage business development efforts on my own at Forty. I tried various sales software systems over the years, but none of them really worked the way I needed them to.
Most sales tracking systems have user experiences based around the structure of the information in the database: you create a company, then you create a contact and assign it to the company, then you create an opportunity and assign it to the contact, etc.
I was pressed for time, though, and no matter how much I know I should be using the tracking system, I kept falling back to tracking it on a spreadsheet or in a text document because it was faster. Eventually, I wound up designing a system of my own that solved the speed problem first, allowing me to enter a new company, contact, and opportunity on the same screen (even though they were separate database records). I didn’t worry about the aesthetics of it, but focused instead on enabling myself to work with the information as fast as possible. To date, it still remains one of my favorite pieces of software I've ever used, and the fact that I finally used a sales tracking system probably accounted for hundreds of thousands of dollars additional revenue.
This same principle applies to almost any corporate software package. Companies invest heavily in software because they understand the benefits of ERP, knowledge management, time tracking, etc., but when employees rebel against poor user experience by using the tools incompletely or not at all, that investment turns into merely a waste of hard-earned dollars.
Design is About Solving Problems, Not Making Things Pretty
The real purpose of user experience design is to get inside the user's head and figure out how they feel about the software and why. Are they frustrated? Are they confused? Are they worried? What's triggering those feelings? How is the software failing to meet their needs?
Those aren't just "touchy-feely" issues. they're real-world reactions that affect real-world behavior. If you can discover and solve those problems, you'll find radical increases in user adoption and retention, enabling the software to finally accomplish the goals it set out for in the first place.
It's not uncommon for us to get feedback from our design clients that they just experienced their "highest revenue/bookings/contributions/engagement/etc. ever!" after we launch a new solution for them. It's not because we're somehow creating user motivation where none existed before, but rather that we broke down the barriers that had been preventing people from fully engaging before.
Software Companies Should Pay Particular Attention
Let's say you're already the dominant software provider in a niche market. Why should you care about user experience design?
Here are a few key reasons, based on actual experiences:
- Increased sales: When you can show screenshots, walkthroughs, and demo videos that showcase an intuitive and pleasant user experience, the decision makers you're trying to convince will understand (consciously or unconsciously) that this is a solution they can see their employees really using. That can make a huge difference in your close rate.
- Increased retention: Before they buy, it's relatively easy to promise a potential client that your software will solve all their problems. However, once they've used the application for six or twelve months, and you go back to them asking them to upgrade, renew, purchase add-ons, etc., you'll have an exceptionally difficult time if their users have essentially abandoned the software. If you can keep users actively engaged with your product, it can be clearer to your client companies why they should double-down on the investment and see if they can squeeze anymore value out of it.
- Reduced competitive risk: Someone's eventually going to solve the user experience problem, and it's going to give them a distinct edge in the market. If it's not your company, it's someone else. Perhaps it's some garage startup you've never heard about. If you feel like your company is on top of a niche market, it doesn't mean your future is assured; it simply means you're the king of the hill waiting to be toppled by some upstart who moves faster and provides a stronger offering.
Overcoming Corporate Inertia
Organizational change is a slow and difficult process, and there's no shortage of resistance along the way. However, promoting strong user experience design within the enterprise is a battle that's worth the scars.
Not only does it generally improve people's lives and make the world a little better place to live (which is often the actual designer's underlying motivation), but it also has very real, practical, and measurable effects on a company's bottom line.
Good design makes money—lots of it—and that makes it worth considering as a fundamental business strategy, both for enterprise software companies and the large companies they serve.