Eight years ago, while working at SAP, I overheard someone say our products needed to be “sexier.” I remember cringing. Fast-forward to today, and the lingo hasn’t changed much. As a consultant for many enterprise customers, I still hear clients asking for ways they can make their products “sexier … like Apple.”

You can’t blame them, right? For many business leaders, the success of Apple validates the need to invest in design. But where companies falter is in understanding that Apple’s sex appeal has less to do with the brushed aluminum and curvy edges. It’s more about a sleek and effortless experience that provokes a feeling of extreme aptitude with their highly personalized consumer gadget. Apple design chief Jony Ive said it best: “Sexy products aren’t a fancy package, a great looking banner, or a slick button. They’re about wowing the customer.”

The question enterprise technology companies need to ask themselves is “what does sexy mean to your enterprise customer?” Put another way, how do your customers want to feel when using your products?

Every product, whether we realize it or not, produces an emotional reaction. As Donald Norman articulated in his seminal book Emotional Design, customers find aesthetically pleasing products more effective. Customers even “love” these products. Norman identified the commercial value in evoking some passion towards products, such as Gucci bags and Rolex watches. MailChimp's Director of User Experince, Aarron Walter, took this one step further with his book, Designing for Emotion. He posits that the goal of emotional design is to connect with users and evoke positive emotions, which will make your users want to continue interacting with your product. MailChimp’s website brings a delightful interface to what is essentially just an email marketing service.

In the tech world we’ve seen lots of unsuccessful, marketing-driven attempts to redress products. I once worked with a major banking client to change their homepage to look “more Web 2.0.” They added Flash, cartoonish fonts, and Clippy-inspired animation. Fortunately we convinced them to test the design before release. It did not perform well and we avoided disaster. But that day we learned a good lesson: pretty colors and Web 2.0 aren’t sexy to your average online banking customer.

If sexy isn’t the right emotion, how do your customers want to feel?

All of this is not to say that enterprise software can’t be sexy. We’ve seen Box.net build a billion-dollar cloud computing company on the premise that “enterprise software is sexy.” Intuit’s Mint.com and 37Signals’ Basecamp are decidedly sexy experiences for otherwise mundane actions. Note, however, that there’s an enormous difference between making your brand sexy and making your experience slick and effortless.

So if sexy isn’t the right emotion, how do your customers want to feel? At EchoUser, we’ve collectively spent thousands of hours engaging with enterprise customers to understand their experience with our clients’ products. Most of this feedback can be grouped in seven buckets:

The 7 Most Common Emotional States of Enterprise Customers

1. Control: Your customer wants to feel like he or she knows how to use your product well—after all, it’s their job to use your products to maximize performance. Easter eggs and super secret keyboard shortcuts are a fun way for consumer products to add delight to the user experience, but enterprise customers don’t necessarily like to be surprised, even if its by good things. The same goes for releasing updates too quickly—do you know how long it usually takes for an enterprise to update its software?

2. Powerful: For a lot of enterprise customers we talk to, their sense of value is highly correlated to how well they do their jobs. This is dependent on how powerful they feel with their tools. That's usually why enterprise customers tend to put in more effort to learn how to use their tools well and will put up with more crap—the payoff is worth it.

3. Trust: Lay off on the fun promises and overly casual jargon. At the end of the day, enterprise customers want to feel like they can trust your product to do their jobs well and protect their data. Basecamp has a no-frills look and feel, which is exactly what you want from project management software.

4. Flexible: Like any good product, users want to feel like they can do anything with it. They can make the tool do whatever their minds can think of. Even better if they can think of ways to use it that others have not. The best enterprise tools allow a higher purpose to be reached, like paints and brushes do for an artist.

5. Calm: These users already are dealing with complex or difficult situations. The last thing they need is for their tool to add to their stress. Keep your UI simple and calming, avoid the bright colors and unexpected experiences.

6. Pride: A well-designed tool is something people are proud to use and are happy to evangelize if it really helps them accomplish their goals. That isn’t to say you can ignore UI. So many of the enterprise tools that I see out there just look terrible, and in interviewing their users you get a sense that they're embarrassed to show the tool because it looks so dated.

7. Accomplished: At the end of the day, your average enterprise customer wants to be able to use your product to do their job well. Intuit’s Mint, though certainly not exclusive to enterprise users, does this well by combining an elegant interface with a product that works. Period. Salesforce has its limitations but most enterprise sales teams can’t imagine life without it. A good enterprise product helps me accomplish my goals. Is that sexy? Or is it just a good product?


As we continue to see the consumerization of enterprise software, it’s important to think about how your customer wants to feel when using your product, not just what features they want. People are highly dependent on integrated systems and want to feel confident those connected systems will work as expected, so they can feel a strong sense of achievement when completing their own work.

Is there room for “sexy” in the enterprise? Maybe, but the first step is understanding what sexy really means to your customer.


Image of sex selling courtesy Shutterstock.

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I'm late to the party here, but I have to respond to your use of the Norman quote and your mention of Mint.

Yes, Norman says "attractive things work better." But he is careful to qualify this statement in a way that many (most?) designers miss.

You are almost on to it when you rightly say that enterprise "users already are dealing with complex or difficult situations." As Norman explains in the article linked below, for these users an undue design emphasis on aesthetic appeal is not advised. Usability *is* more important than sexy visuals, at least for professionals working with software.


Of course, it's more complicated than that, because aesthetics does play a role in usability (although not as large a role as most designers may think, relative to other aspects of usability.) And it's not an either / or proposition. You *can* make software that is both visually beautiful and highly usable and high-performing for the user.

But here's the rub: all software design is an exercise in triage. You have to place your bets on what matters most. Deadlines and budgets are always constraining factors. Many designers bristle at the notion that making the software pretty sometimes takes a backseat to usable. Those designer should stay squarely in the shiny, flashy, consumer space and not attempt to design for professionals trying to get work done in stressful situations.

As for your mention of Mint -- you wrongly use this product in a discussion about Enterprise software. Mint is a consumer product, owned by the consumer division of Intuit.

I work for the Pro Tax Group business unit of Intuit. I can assure you, our principled design approach for our (professional) users is significantly different compared to the Mint team. Much of the time our products aren't pretty -- but our customers love them, and can do great work with them.

A lot of designers don't want to hear this, but design for professionals is a different ball game. You need a new playbook.

I pretty much came to say the same thing you said about Mint. I'm an avid user from the time it was a startup way before Intuit bought it and I've often cited it as a great example of visual appeal and usability. However, it's decidedly NOT an enterprise product. I was, in fact, shocked that it was used as an example of one. Mint, like most consumer products, does not have any particularly complex functionality.

As far as what you said about most designers not understanding that making enterprise software "pretty" isn't that important you're wrong. I think it's you that doesn't understand what is meant by visual appeal. A design doesn't have to have any pretty pictures in it to be visually appealing. The best enterprise tools can and should be visually appealing, but that appeal comes from good fonts, good use of white space, nice colors and a clean, modern look. Most enterprise software is butt ugly not because it lacks pretty pictures, but because zero attention was paid to all of the above.

Marat -- so now you're redefining what *most* people mean when they talk about "sexy" design. Of course I agree with the notion that good fonts, good use of white space, nice colors and a clean, modern look is helpful. We simply disgree; I believe that is NOT what most people would define as "sexy" design. And yes, I include designers in that statement. There are, quite frankly, a lot of designers out there who would rather be artists. But anyway, it's a semantic argument and somewhat beside the point.

As for enterprise software being butt ugly because zero attention was paid to the above: thank you for underscoring my point about triage. If you've ever worked on a typical enterprise software team, you know *why* these things don't get attention. There usually isn't enough resourcing given by the company to address those issues, relative to the mountain of feature requests, technical debt, and other higher priorities to meet the needs of paying customers and the demands of the market. Not to mention problems with information architecture and interaction design that require expensive design resources. This is design in the real world when you're trying to solve big problems for professionals. It ain't always pretty.

I repeat: for designers who want to make everything sexy all the time, stay in the commercial space. You'll be happier. That's not how I want it; that's simply how it is.

I also work for SAP.  In my office, we came up with the term "workboot sexy".  It means that something is desireable when it gets the job done quickly and without affectations. 

When you look at the design of Apple's iOS UI, the visual artifacts have changed over time, yet the interface maintains its desireability over time.  I believe it is because the visual artifacts hang off of a very simple (and constrained) interface that just gets the job done.  Complicated - whether in work or in life - is rarely sexy.  It's just complicated.

To make enterprise software "sexy" the easiest way is to give the visual design an upgrade but apart from an "Ah ok, nice" emotion it invokes, it will not fix a lot. The more important but harder part is to change flows. These are the steps a user need to take to get something done. Then there is performance which is often overlooked as a critical part in UX.

The problem with enterprise software is that flows and performance are really hard to change because apps are built on many technology layers and often these are not even clearly separated. Enterprise software also typically has to deal with enormous volumes of data, complex queries and security (in the sense of which role can see what but also in storing as little data on local devices as possible) which makes it even worse.

To build great enterprise user experiences, a lot has to be rebuild and this means risks, downtime and migration. And not only for the software vendor but also for the customers who are using the software. Both are reluctant to change. The customer is happy that it works and although not very happy with the UX, they prefer it this way than to go through more pain. And for the vendor the business justification to make things "sexy" is just not there as long as the buyers buy anyway.

But there is hope. With the rise of cloud software things will be different. IT is simplified and managed by the provider and many new enterprise cloud vendors have appeared in the last years with new products with a great UX. This makes it more tempting to switch. So what we see now is that enterprise software vendors are pushed to get cracking on great enterprise software design.

Well said! Let's try to communicate it to SAP and to other enterprise technology companies who still try to find their way to "consumers' like apps".

Word ("sexy") or not, I get the point and agree. There's blindly going into a look and feel that might be "in" but doesn't fit with the audience. Still, I work with some companies who don't try to add any style, or attempt to elicit any emotion in their design at all, thereby playing it "safe". Or, mostly adhering to what an non-creative executive team wants to see rather than letting the creatives have a go at it. Boring software (or webpage's for that matter) aren't a user win either, and lower adoption. I think it's a balance of both sides.

Good article. One correction: Aaron Walter is not the CEO of Mailchimp. That would be Ben Chestnut. Aaron is Director of UX at Mailchimp. [Error fixed, thanks!—Ed]

"Sexy"? SAP still hasn't cracked easy implement, train and use...

Great article. I'm forever trying to get the primary focus on the user task. Anything you do to make the design look 'sexy' should come secondary and not hinder the users progress throughout the system.

Me and my team actually use the term 'make it look sexy' ironically and as a bit of a dig at people that don't know quite know what they're talking about!

There is no room for sexiness in design, at all. It brings an unfortunate and useless sexual (and even gendered) tone to the conversation. Just look at the picture chosen to illustrate this article. Words like "attractive" and theories of desirability are highly sufficient.

Having the word "sexy" come up in product design conversations has always been a face-palm moment for me. It's fundamentally subjective, and it usually represents the presumption that the speaker's gut feeling is a good barometer of desirability for actual users. Plus it's hypersensitive to passing design fads (remember the Web 2.0 motif?) and Apple wins this game by defining style, not following it. But yet, there is some kernel of "sexy" that's real and universal within a given culture. It's one of those "I know it when I see it" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_know_it_when_I_see_it) things that's only measurable by people who are calibrated to an evolving cultural consensus. Count on enterprise execs and IT people to be less well calibrated than average.

So I appreciate that this article doesn't get stuck on the difficulties with the word, and instead used it as a pivot to return focus to the right measure of desirability, i.e., the actual user's actual perspective.