Most of us have had experience with – or have seen images of – big, ugly, complicated enterprise software. These programs are all about functionality and not known for being user-friendly. Employees spend massive amounts of time learning the weird ways the software works in order to do their jobs, rather than the software conforming to the user.
The explosion of mobile devices in the last decade and their simple, intuitive, and often beautiful apps have forced enterprise software companies to drop the gray boxes for some color and a user-centric way of thinking. Business users no longer want to slug through a bunch of screens or settings to do simple tasks. They expect the programs they rely on to do their job day-to-day will be as easy to use as simple apps on their smartphone.
Here at RevUnit, we’ve spent years designing high-quality apps targeted to business users. Here are a few things we’ve learned along the way that are important for you to know when designing an enterprise app.
Enterprise Is Not Consumer
It sounds obvious, but a business user is very different than a consumer. Business users aren’t looking to pass the time while waiting in line; they have to get things done. Right now. They often have created their own workflow to accomplish tasks with existing tools, and anything that upsets that flow is usually met with stiff resistance.
Unlike consumer apps where a small outage might cause some people to be upset on Twitter for a few hours, an outage in a business app may stop someone from being able to do their job and could have financial implications for the company.
The devices and tools employees use on a day to day basis must enable, not hinder, their performance. They don’t need whiz-bang animations, fancy graphics, or 15,000 options. They need simple, intuitive, and fast apps that allow them to perform a task quickly, accurately, and easily. As a designer, it’s your responsibility to make sure the application fulfills these needs, which also means that your form must follow function.
Modern office workers use a variety of different platforms to do their jobs. Many often use a smartphone, tablet, and one or more desktop computers all in the course of a normal work day. Depending on your app’s requirements, it is likely it will need to work across all of these platforms at the same time. It’s imperative that you understand what platforms your audience relies on day to day, how they use the devices, and how your app will fit into their workflow so your team can design and build appropriately.
Enterprise Apps Are Mission Critical
Modern business dealings move very quickly, and companies must adapt or be left behind. Many companies with distributed or “in the field” workforces now rely on apps to connect employees and streamline processes so they can do their jobs more quickly and accurately. Thus, these business apps are considered “Mission Critical” to employees doing their day-to-day jobs. Apps must be solid, responsive, accurate, and ready to go at any time.
It will be your responsibility as a designer to create the appropriate experience to enable the user, not one that will just look good in your portfolio. If the app is cumbersome, unresponsive, displays incorrect or incomplete data, or can not connect to the servers needed, it will negatively impact the employee’s workflow. This will cost the employee time. Time equals productivity. Productivity equals money. Loss of time, productivity, or money can take a small issue and cause it to compound quickly and can cause whole teams to lose effectiveness.
Keep It Simple
One common reason an enterprise client builds an internal app is to simplify a complex process for its workforce. This means that the design team must fully understand the process as it currently exists, from the easy tasks to the difficult ones. At every step along the way, the app should make the process simpler, faster, and easier for the user.
It shouldn’t be only the UX designers that dive deep into understanding the existing process, but the whole product development team. This will allow everyone, including designers, product owners, developers, strategists, and the client to have informed conversations on ways to simplify and improve the process throughout development. Things to consider are screen content and functionality, how information is displayed, accessed, and stored in the current infrastructure. The team should be encouraged to challenge decisions and offer alternative solutions. If the app isn’t making the user’s task easier and more straightforward, then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and try again.
The App Is Part Of Their Job
Throughout the entire development process, everyone on the team must keep in mind how the app will help the employee do his or her job. It can’t be about making some corporate executive happy, following the latest design trend, or utilizing a new open source library. Users of enterprise apps are not there to simply pass the time; they are using the app because it’s their job. So, make it as user-friendly and helpful as possible.
In the enterprise space, this also means that some visual elements in a consumer-oriented app, like fun animations or playful graphics, may need to be cut because they do not help the user do his or her task. We’re not looking to entertain; we are looking to enable. For the enterprise user, form must always follow function.
[su_quote]We’re not looking to entertain, we are looking to enable.[/su_quote]
Consider The Device Landscape
Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) has taken over the corporate world because it allows employees to use a device that they already understand. Generally, these users are a little more tech savvy and will be more open to using the app, especially if it makes their life a little easier. It also means designing for a lot more devices on multiple platforms.
Sometimes, though, companies will issue a device for a specific group or a specific task. For UX designers and developers, this is the ideal scenario because you know exactly what device(s) you need to design, build, and test. During the requirements phase of any project, be sure to define all devices the app will need to support so the team can design, build, and test the app appropriately.
Understand The Infrastructure
Most likely an enterprise app will sit on top of existing company IT infrastructure. In some ways, this is helpful because you’ll be able to access company information directly. But sometimes, legacy infrastructure is missing newer information or does not have the necessary APIs to access the content.
It is critical during the enterprise UX design phase that the designer and developer work closely with the IT or technology department to identify what can and cannot be accessed. By knowing the limitations early, app requirements and designs can more accurately reflect the end product saving both time and budget.
Involve the Users Early & Often
Unlike consumer apps which may be introducing a new idea to the world, enterprise apps are created to meet an existing business need. These users are more invested in helping make the app right from the beginning because they will depend on it every work day. They will almost always be willing to help you understand their process and what they must to complete the task, all you have to do is ask.
User Interviews & Research
During initial user interviews, it’s vital to fully understand how employees currently do their jobs, utilize existing tool sets, and the different needs of individuals in different roles. What works for one person in the field, may be completely different for someone behind a desk. Enterprise apps have to address these issues from the beginning, and it’s up to the whole team to understand the issue.
The best part about these direct user interviews is that they will give unbiased and first-hand information to help the team design the app. Ask them what is working, and what is not. How might they improve the process if they were to create it from scratch? What three things would make their life easier?
Make sure the questions are simple but relevant to their job, the task at hand, and the process you are trying to simplify. Take time to craft questions that do not lead the user to any specific answer. For example, don’t ask yes or no questions, or “would you use this” type questions, as they lead the user. Finally, follow up their answer with different questions that are not part of the established ones. Sometimes you have to tug the string a little more to fully understand what they are trying to say.
[su_quote]Listen carefully; often little side comments may be key to unlocking the core problem at hand[/su_quote]
Prototypes and User Testing
After the first round of designs are complete, it’s important to test a prototype with real employees that will use the app. Do not try to sell them on how the app is better than their current process. If it is, they’ll tell you. If it’s more difficult, they’ll tell you. Most likely, the first pass might miss a step or may have been simplified too much. That’s OK. Take their feedback, make the necessary changes, then get it back in front of them to test again. Do this until the design and process are right.
Finally, gathering and addressing ongoing user feedback about the app is critical to its success and adoption. Be sure to include a feedback mechanism in the app and truly listen to the feedback you are getting. Allow the users to determine the next bits of functionality or bug fix priorities with their feedback, not what someone at corporate HQ says they will get. Apps are most successful when users see their feedback and concerns being addressed in updates.
It’s OK to Say No
Working with big companies usually means working with a big team. This means there are many different people with their goals for the project, different opinions on what should or should not be included, and all who want to make their mark. Office politics will be a real part of day-to-day interactions, so it’s important to maintain a good working relationship with the key stakeholder. This person will help you navigate the office waters.
Don’t be afraid to say no and push back if a request is made that would change the purpose of the app, negatively affect the experience, or would adversely affect the timeline or budget. The priority must always be the user and enabling their workflow. It’s hard for someone at HQ to argue with direct user comments about what they want or need, so always justify a no with appropriate user feedback, usage data, or other information.
App adoption in the business world isn’t much different than consumer world. Companies all want users to be using the app as much as possible. The difference is that while consumer apps require ads, word of mouth, and other mechanisms to become known in the sea of the app store, businesses can quickly communicate directly with employees over existing channels like email.
But just because users know about the app doesn’t mean they will install or use it. RevUnit’s Product Adoption Strategists work with our clients and development teams throughout the development process to craft a playbook on how to get employees to use, retain, and embrace the app into their day-to-day workflow. This sometimes means changing company policies or procedures to include the app.
This is where design can really help. Onboarding screens that walk the user through the app, a properly tailored experience, and contextual clues on completing specific tasks can all aid in app usage. If you’ve done your homework with user research and testing, then they will use it all on their own without being told to do so.
Factor In ROI
Finally, Return on Investment (ROI) has to be factored into business apps from the start. How will this help productivity? How will it save the company time or money? Enterprise apps must be able to justify their expense and demonstrate their value more quickly than consumer apps.
It’s not just the initial launch that factors in ROI. Ongoing development, iterations, and bug fixes are all factors that must be considered. Apps are now living things that grow and mature over time; they are no longer build once and done. Most mobile device users now expect regular updates of their apps. Using feedback from actual users will help the team plan, adjust, and set the app’s roadmap for the future while still fitting in with very real business budgets, timelines, and goals. So while one of your grand ideas might not fit in the initial launch, it doesn’t mean it can’t be introduced in a later version if it is still relevant.
These are just a handful of ways that designing an enterprise app is different than one for consumers. In many ways, it’s the same, but there are some distinctly unique things you have to consider. Happy designing!