Tracking the evolution of user experience in enterprise products and predicting where it could go next

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Tracking the evolution of user experience in enterprise products and predicting where it could go next

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Last updated on January 11th, 2024

User Experience or UX as it is more popularly known has come a long way since the ‘90’s when Don Norman coined the term for his group at Apple Computer. As we move deeper into the software-defined world and as technology continues to make steady strides, we experience similar seismic shifts in User Experience as well. However, UX did not get the due attention it deserves for a long time in the enterprise. The world was busy focusing on UX for consumer products. Through that time, a large majority of people using enterprise software almost always got a sub-par experience.

UX in the ’90s

User experience for the longest time was never a priority for business software. What mattered was that these applications (which were usually large and complex) worked. Enterprises often did not see the point of tweaking or beautifying a software when creating a basic functionality for a piece of enterprise software was challenging enough.

Since UX was a relatively new concept, it initially was looked at merely as a human interface and was intended to have just that focus. But UX, as Don Norman intended, was to cover all aspects of experience with the system. This included things like interface, design graphics, services, and physical and manual interactions. However, since the focus was primarily on consumer software and software products, UX was restricted to pixels and drawings in the enterprise context.

Enterprise software users also were willing to adapt to whatever complex software product was put in front of them. There was, after all, no option. The enterprise user had not yet risen in ranks to become the consumer of enterprise products. And, of course, there was always “tech support” a mere call away if they got stuck with anything.

UX in the early 2000s

User experience in enterprise products did improve in the early 2000s. The software was becoming an integral part of all organizations. The web revolution had made the world more connected and smaller. The criticality of software was increasing gradually and with that were the user expectations from the interactions with the software. Interaction design gradually crept up in the vocabulary of software design.

The focus on UX was still limited in the enterprise product space even while it started becoming more prominent in the consumer products space. This was more so since consumers almost always interacted with software products on the web and the unwritten rule of the web was – “user experience first, payment second”. UX was the gatekeeper of the money. It naturally got the attention it deserved. But in the enterprise, while UX improved a little and became less clunky as compared to earlier, enterprise UX still evolved slowly when compared to consumer UX.

Since the workflow aspects of enterprise products were always prioritized, user experience and design were relegated to an afterthought. However, a less-than-perfect user experience (UX) was still what the enterprise users got.

UX post-2010

By now, the world was being dominated by the proliferation of software. Enterprises had realized that good design was indeed good for business. The world was being written in code at an increasing pace. Technological change was becoming faster and this was coming to the maturity of technologies such as Cloud. What was also changing was the workforce demographic. The silent generations and baby boomers were gradually on their way out. The millennials, a generation proficient in technology, were fast on their way to becoming the majority of the workforce.

The enterprise user was on the way to becoming an enterprise consumer. The app economy started to gain a stronghold. Smartphones were everywhere. The proficiency of the user in software and digital products and the expectations from it were increasing. “Don’t Make Me Think”, said the consumer and the enterprise listened.
But then this consumer who was unrelenting in his expectation from consumer-grade software was now also the enterprise software user. The enterprise had to start paying attention as employees wanted the same quality of software at work as they did in their personal lives.

In light of these changes, enterprises had to rethink their approach to enterprise products UX. Personal, simple, intuitive, immediate, and delightful experiences are what enterprise product users demanded. UX could no longer be compromised for functionality.

The way ahead

As we become more software-driven than ever before, especially as we navigate the times of the anytime-anywhere work culture and remote working, UX has to evolve again. Now along with moving from aspects such as interaction design, it also has to account for several other factors. UX has to be device-agnostic now. This is no longer an option as smartphones and tablets become an integral and essential part of the enterprise vocabulary. Elements such as interactive design and gamification are becoming more prominent as well as users demand more engagement since lines between tools for work and those for personal use begin blurring.

The complexity of enterprise products cannot be ignored when talking about UX. Enterprise business processes are often complex and very sophisticated. Reflecting these in the software with all the nuances in place becomes a high hanging fruit. The role of enterprise UX is not to hide complexity from the eyes of the enterprise user but essentially is to help the user manage it by ensuring that the complexity is at an accurate level.

UX also has to now move beyond navigation and look at elements that impact the user experience. Elements such as network connections, proper LAN setups, access management, security, end-point security, etc. all have to be considered as UX elements. This is because they impact product performance especially as remote working and global teams become an indelible reality of the enterprise. And performance and experience are always interlinked. Adjusting network and bandwidth needs of enterprise products thus also become UX elements since latency also has a huge performance impact.

There was a time Steve Jobs once said: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology — you can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try and sell it.” This approach is what made Apple the company it is. With the proliferation of software products in the enterprise, this approach fits the enterprise context like a glove as well.

When it comes to enterprise products, UX matters more now than ever before as almost all businesses become software-driven. While the enterprise product user might not be the buyer, all organizations now know that an enterprise product has to deliver a seamless experience to prevent its users from abandoning the product and to strengthen user loyalty. So, just as we are placing the consumer in the heart of product design for consumer products, it makes complete sense to put the enterprise user in the heart of enterprise products and give them a UX that helps them complete their tasks with ease. Simply put, “Don’t Make Them Think” applies in the enterprise context more now than ever before. The enterprise has no option but to listen to its consumer.

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