Crafting User Experience for Enterprise Products

What exactly is UX Design?

Products and services. Content and form. Everything we perceive can elicit our reaction — emotional or behavioral. Depending on what we experience, we may like or dislike the source, desire or avoid it.

People use software products or services to achieve a goal or complete a task — not only for the sake of using them. Hence, any product should help the user and assist him throughout. The reason why products exist is that they can simplify our life or work.

To serve people well, a product needs to be:

  1. Functional – focused on real needs and do what it is intended for;
  2. Usable – understandable, easy to use, and communicating in the user’s language;
  3. Delightful – exceeding expectations, surprising and pleasing the user with its exceptional quality.

That is what User Experience Design is all about – creating products that serve their purpose, while at the same time ensuring simplicity and desirability. Products that induce positive emotions.

UX in Enterprise Products

The times when companies and their products were differentiated by technological advantages and engineering expertise have long passed. In the contemporary world, anyone can build on top of the stack of cumulative knowledge and freely accessible software components (God bless the Open Source movement!).

According to Harley Manning and Kerry Bodine, authors of the book Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business: “customer experience is now the only sustainable source of competitive advantage for companies. More than any other factor, the experience a customer has with a brand determines whether that business will thrive or struggle.”

This may seem quite obvious for consumer products, which are used by the same people who buy them. However, things get complicated when it comes to the market of enterprise products, as the distance between the buyer and the user increases. Satisfying two groups of people (deciders and users) instead of one is an extra challenge for a UX Designer, and consequently, not many companies succeed.

Another problem is complexity. Business processes are often sophisticated, so reflecting them in the software, with all their nuances, can be a high hanging fruit. As Mark Bishop, COO at Multilingual Connections and an XTRF user, once said, “It seems so simple, but in the real world it gets a bit messy.” Moreover, enterprise systems are usually used by experts, i.e. users who know exactly what and how should be done. Therefore, the role of an enterprise product shift from hiding the complexity from the eyes of the user to helping him manage it — by keeping complexity at an accurate level.

All things considered, designing User Experience for an enterprise product is no piece of cake — especially a full-featured and highly customizable system like XTRF. The designer must be prepared to tackle many challenges across the design process.

Understanding the need

The key to designing a good product is to understand what users really need. A qualified user-researcher knows that the Holy Grail lies in asking the right questions, not in the answers.

By focusing on the problems – instead of the solutions – in the early stages of the design process, a designer can jump out of the box imposed by initial assumptions and suggestions (users have a tendency to speak the language of solutions, which they view as the best way of solving their problems), and look at the problem from a broader perspective. This method, called divergent thinking, almost always leads to better solutions, as the originally stated problem can be reframed to extract its essence. Charles Lambdin depicted this very accurately in his tweet about design thinking (a diagram adapted from the book De Bono’s Thinking Course):

Many clients, different needs and one product

If building a product for one enterprise is far from simple, then what about designing a product that is to be used by hundreds of companies? Forget about the “one to rule them all” maxim — no doubt even the Lord of the Rings would fail here.

Every company knows its business well. Over the years they develop their own processes and solutions to common problems. The worst thing a Product Owner could do is ask the company to forget everything and follow the process imposed by the product. This would be (and often is) taken as an invasion.

The designer’s job is to create a product that can adapt to a specific context – or rather multiple contexts. The relation between product and user has to be symbiotic — it needs to be designed with that in mind. A user learns how to use a product, while the product adapts to the user’s way of work and his task requirements. The process of learning each other should mimic a marriage – more evolution than revolution.

Consistency helps usability

Enterprise products can be really complex. Lots of modules, hundreds of features… and thousands of opportunities for inconsistency.

Keeping things consistent at the level of interaction and architecture has a range of advantages — both for the user and the designer. First of all, it can reduce cognitive load while using the product, which positively affects the overall user experience. The product can be seen and felt as more seamless, easy to learn and simple.

Secondly, the human error rate is lower when the same behaviors can be applied to multiple parts of the product, between products, or even outside the product suite (e.g. a product should follow design patterns and principles of the operating system within which it works, so that the amount of new interactions that must be learned during the onboarding process is minimized).

As a result, users can focus more on the task at hand, and less on the system (or the nuances of the interface). The lack of interruptions leads to a better efficiency.

The struggle for consistency helps designers, too, as it allows them to spread a single, well-prepared solution along the entire product — design once, use many times. Although it sounds like a reasonable approach, the reality of developing IT systems isn’t always as simple or cheerful. Big systems have big legacy. When a new cutting-edge technology has to be incorporated into an old monolithic system, a compromise is inevitable. And consistency is often the price.

Quality or time? Can we have both?

Nine women can’t make a baby in one month. Period.

Certain processes require time, regardless of the number of resources invested. Obviously, this is true only under the assumption that the process needs to be carried out properly while maintaining quality standards and ensuring a decent user experience. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Once the scope is set and deadlines are promised, quality has to be sacrificed. More, faster, more features, faster delivery… is this really better? What does “better” actually mean?

Focusing on scope and time, and simultaneously omitting the element of quality, is a trap. Have we forgotten that “customer experience is now the only sustainable source of competitive advantage for companies”? What’s the point in delivering lots of features in a short period of time when they are not usable, not to mention the “delightful” part? A highway to fail.

XTRF to delight you

That’s why at XTRF we have reorganized the priorities at some point. Quality took first place, and time and scope must follow. So, when you hear “later” or “no” from our Product Owner, it’s not his resistance — it comes from caring about the user and his experience. We want XTRF to be not only functional, not only usable but also delightful. We owe it to our users.

To better understand what areas we should focus on most, we launched XTRF User Echo — a platform where users can express their feelings and share their experiences. Hence, it became a fuel for the XTRF development roadmap.

Obviously, the transition requires time, and we are in the middle of improving the product to make it better than ever. For users. For humans. For you.

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Mikołaj Pastuszko
Lead UX Designer
Lead UX Designer at XTRF, with 10 years experience in IT and over 7 years at XTRF. Mikołaj is responsible for managing the Design Team and for the overall user experience of the XTRF product, especially Smart Projects. He is passionate about adapting technology to human needs, thus making it simple and delightful for people.
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