As we continue doing business in the midst of the digital economy, mobile apps are becoming critical tools for companies seeking to mobilize and optimize key business processes. And although functionality of these apps is of utmost importance, the visual experience plays a larger role, too, which is why this is the year for bridging the design gap between enterprise and consumer apps.

The consumerization of IT is rapidly changing the enterprise technology landscape. And to meet these changes, it falls partly on UI/UX designers (like yours truly) to forge a middle ground between enterprise apps and consumer apps.

The theme you’ll hear from any blogpost on the consumerization of IT is that everyone in your organization uses a mobile device both in their personal and professional lives: everyone is a consumer.

The users are the same, but the processes and purposes are different. Yet, it’s a solid guarantee that Warehouse Joe experiences a much sleeker, more visually interesting, and intuitive interface when he’s slashing pixelated fruit on his lunch break than when he’s out on the floor preparing shipments with his mobile device.

Out of necessity, enterprise apps have been built to get the job done. In the enterprise app hierarchy, function sits squarely over form. When building an enterprise app, the first question is: what do you need to get done? For example, “I need my driver to update orders from the field.” What we might commonly see to address that task is the barest amount of information and a blank data entry field squashed in the left hand corner over a white background.

When a user sees that screen without prior training, they get the same look on their face that my dog does when I ask for a handshake. His face says, “I love you, but I don’t know what you want me to do here.” As a UI/UX designer, the last thing you want your app to invoke is this quizzical stare with head cocked to the side.

The last thing you want your app to invoke is the quizzical stare with head cocked to the side

By embracing some of the strengths of consumer apps, UI/UX designers in the enterprise can create smart designs that are functional and tailored to specific business processes. When I say well designed, I’m looking for specific criteria. A well-designed app shows intention put into the design; it’s intuitive, if not instructional. On the surface, it should be visually impressive, but inside, it should not only be powerful, it should also make work and processes easier and more efficient.

Users are now accustomed to visual elements and high-class visual design in consumer apps, but the apps must also be thoughtful and relevant to the task at hand. You might even make the argument that this sort of relevance is sometimes more important in an enterprise app, since these mobile solutions are likely enabling a business-related process and can be a critical problem-solving tool.

The million-dollar question is, of course, how do we achieve this balance? At DSI, we use a comprehensive discovery process to gather business requirements, goals, and long-term strategies. Once we know exactly what information and processes our users need, we can build a visually engaging, agile app that meets current needs and can be quickly scaled to accommodate future business growth and change.

What strategies are you using to bridge the gap between enterprise and consumer apps? Leave a comment below to join the conversation.

 

Image of Japanese bridge courtesy Shutterstock.

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Good ideas in the post, but some area need to more on what is the best way to do the app.

So yes, intuitive and purposely-designed applications are just as important in an enterprise app as they are in consumer apps. But there is a lot more to consider in an enterprise app than visual appeal and ease of use - with enterprise software there are often a variety of users with varying needs. To optimize the experience for each role, UI/UX designers need to pay attention to how the user executes a task and remove unnecessary features that convolute the experience. You have to ask, what can we do to expedite the process for each user individually with their unique roles and needs?

Also, mobile isn't always the right choice for every enterprise situation. In a redesign for Cenduit's IRT system interface, we realized quickly in the discovery phase that the tasks were too precise and complicated to complete on a mobile device and the users had no need for mobility in this situation. Making it web based saved them a ton of money and their users are super happy with the new redesign. We actually recorded a podcast with Cenduit about the redesign of their interface if you want to know more about this: http://www.cenduit.com/quickcasts (it's the last one on this page, titled User Experience and the New IRT User Interface). In other cases however, mobile is clearly the way to go.

Bottom line, purposeful UX is just as crucial for enterprise as choosing the right platform for the user.

You couldn't be more right, my friend. At DSI, when the Services team starts gathering requirements, I send a UX Considerations checklist along with them. It gathers information like device types, OS, screen res, user profiles including handicaps, language requirements and customizations (e.g. wearing gloves), user scenarios, et al.

We've learned from our past mistakes and now we work to get those considerations documented up front so that we can provide the strongest solution possible. On my team, I often through around the idea that we are "letting the user get back to the human part of their job" when we help expedite their process(es).

You will bridge the gap when you prove return on investment of UX/UI. I had to fight tooth and nail to get bootstrap included by demonstrating the long term maintenance cost saving of having a unified CSS policy and mitigate the short term cost of getting to grips with the structures. And that's just bootstrap!

I want there to be better UX/UI in the apps I work on but designers have roundly failed to demonstrate the ROI. If I said to my CTO that we should "gather business requirements, goals, and long-term strategies" then he would say "we do that now, you can't build software without it!". And I would agree. That doesn't bridge the gap at all. Unless the person signing of the requirements is a UX/UI fanatic and is happy to put 10% onto the cost of the project.

You bring up a good point, Rob. Traditionally, graphic, interactive and user experience designers haven't offered up good ROI. But in enterprise, we designers are often tasked with work after the contract has been signed and money has traded hands. Now, we are committed to providing the client with the best experience possible in the scope of what was sold. We're not trying to convince the client of our vision, we're asked to implement it.

But, to your point, at DSI, we have a CEO that believes strongly in the power of quality user experience and the quality of intentional interatcive design, and because of that we've seen a lot of great work get demo-ed to prospects and then end up being a factor in said prospect signing an agreement with us to provide a solution for them.

Interestingly enough, we (Movoto) are currently forging new ways for Real Estate agents to interact with Real Estate buyers / sellers. Most recently I have been tasked with defining a consolidated UI/UX that allows for Real Estate Agents to easily update the status of their clients.

What we found most useful based on agent feedback is providing them with native "pickers" or form selection tools. Custom sliders other "jazzy" form value tools simply get in the way of the task at hand and slow down the input process (too much fussing / need for discovery with the new input tool).

The elegant balance, for us, comes in defining the "pickers" or form selection tool to have smooth transitions as well as solid corporate colors / identity.

Jason, thanks for the input. You mention that you chose to move forward based on agent feedback - do you mean you did some user testing? I ask because I love that you took the issue to the people who would be using your app and that the feedback acted as sort of a compass on how to move forward. That's great.

You hit the nail on the head when discussing the 'elegant balance'. There is a sweet spot in good user experience design where the users are unaware of the experience on which there are being guided. They see a good interactive (or graphic) design and don't notice the experience until they've completed their task and think, "Wow. That was easy."

Many of the apps our Services team implements are heavily connected on the back-end. There is a lot going on under the hood, and we try to aim for what I call 'gentle nudges' when we instruct and notify the user. It's impossible to have an immediately intuitive interface for procressing work orders on a mobile device, so I try to ensure that whenever a user picks up that app, they can look at the screen and quickly assess where they are and what's next.