The Enterprise Software Design Opportunity

January 10, 2019

Design is going through a well-documented renaissance, largely led by consumer demand for beautiful and intuitive experiences, with the iPhone’s 2007 launch often cited as the tipping point. In response to this, smart businesses and brands around the world are investing deeply in designing and developing world-class digital experiences for their customers, but most are overlooking a huge opportunity within their own walls: Enterprise Software Design.

Internal Enterprise Software is any internal software platforms and tools used by a corporation’s employees or partners. Examples include employee portals, project management tools, customer relationship management (CRM) platforms, enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications, business intelligence (BI) dashboards, learning management systems (LMS), as well as a limitless number of other custom applications.

It’s kind of a big deal.

To understand just how big and complex this category of software is, if the Fortune 1000 each have an average of 50 (intentional lowball) enterprise software systems, there are 50,000 in the US alone. Further, unlike consumer software (apps, for instance), which pride themselves on simplicity and minimalist design, enterprise software often addresses unavoidable complexity and can have 50+ distinct user interfaces. Multiplying that against our 50,000 pieces of software, and we now have 2,500,000 interfaces which someone had to design, either intentionally or unintentionally. And this doesn’t even take into account desktop vs. mobile or responsive design.

if the Fortune 1000 each have an average of 50 enterprise software systems, there are 50,000 in the US alone, with potentially 2.5 million unique screens

Each and every day, the workforces of the Fortune 1000 use this software for mission-critical activities, like reconciling bank transfers, monitoring commercial air traffic, and detecting cybersecurity breaches.

1. Increased Productivity

The simplest and most obvious impact is increased productivity. Unlike consumer-facing applications, enterprise applications don’t win awards for time-in-application. Intuitively designed software not only cuts down on direct interaction time by a user, but redesigned workflows can completely transform the series of dependencies within a business process, decreasing time and cost all the way through to completion.

2. Reduced Human Error

Slightly less obvious, but equally important is the reduction in human error that great design can provide. Confusing software can lead to costly mistakes, like a shipment of aircraft engine parts to the wrong hub, or even an incorrect diagnosis for a patient at a hospital.

3. Happier Workforce

This final factor is much harder to measure, but today’s workforces are accustomed to powerful, intuitive, and truly “futuristic” digital experiences, increasingly powered by voice and AI. It stands to reason that an employee who walks into work listening to music on an iPhone, changing the song with a simple voice command, and then seamlessly switching to a call as it comes in, is not going to enjoy logging into the painful mainframe system at work.

Enterprise Design Fundamentals

While enterprise software design is notably complex due to domain knowledge and business process perspectives, here is a simple set of design guidelines to get you and your teams thinking about the right areas of opportunity:

Simplicity: Why does the system in question exist? Do you really need all of those pages/views/workflows/fields/buttons? Break your users down into archetypical personas and analyze what they require from the perspective of a minimum viable product (MVP), not the perspective of “what could they potentially need”. Design with a roadmap in mind.

Role-base Optimization: This is a big area of opportunity. Take the time to invest in different user experiences for different user personas. Don’t be afraid to entirely hide areas of functionality, or create multiple versions of a page or view. You will reduce errors, reduce complexity, and simplify onboarding and training.

Device optimization: Don’t build everything for everything. Ask yourself “are our users actually going to perform this task on a phone?”. Mobile-first is not a synonym for “build everything into your mobile experience”. You will save effort, complexity, and cost.

Getting Started

The first few steps on this journey is all about establishing the context:

Firstly, level-set of your existing technology–both the benefits and limitations. Then identify and prioritize your organizational goals, both legacy and the new/evolving ones. Finally, run Design Thinking workshops to explore, ideate, prioritize and get the ball moving.

When was the last time your organization thought about internal software design? Maybe the time to start is now?

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