UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1057 July 18, 2013

Rethinking Enterprise UX in the Age of Consumerization

The consumerization of IT is a notion that gets tossed around in technology conversations a lot these days, touching on everything from security to mobile-enabled workers.

Interestingly, the idea isn't commonly found in discussions surrounding enterprise technology and user experience, but it should be.

Originally, the consumerization of IT trend was viewed as the way that consumers brought personal technology with them to their professional lives, and introduced it to the enterprise environment.

This has now expended into the way that consumers expect software to operate in their professional world. They are used to the sleek, easy-to-use UX of apps such as Evernote or Instagram, and want their enterprise software to provide them with the same experience.

Very rapidly the consumerization of IT has fundamentally changed expectations for the user experience of enterprise software. For instance, Google Docs has challenged a world once dominated by Microsoft Office, which has in turn had to respond with its own web-based solution. The result is that IT departments are no longer the gatekeepers of enterprise software solutions.

The availability of Web-based apps has empowered the average employee to work around IT and find his or her own solutions, whether that's good for the enterprise or not. This presents a problem for IT departments, which need workers to use approved software that is in line with company security and information policies, so they can avoid data leakage and compliance violations. This also represents a huge challenge for UX designers of enterprise software.

A New Challenge Requires a New Approach

There is a need to bridge the disparate experiences of IT administrators and end users, so that IT doesn’t have to contend with employees circumventing their implemented software solutions, which are often in place to secure intellectual property and other company assets. IT managers have been traditionally concerned with the features of a solution. They select software based on its ability to accomplish specific functions on a periodic basis, such as running reports, removing or adding authenticated users, and keeping data storage in one particular region for compliance reasons. Their use of the technology is more often than not an ad hoc experience, rather than an experience that pervades day-to-day activities.

The end user experience of software is not features-based, it is workflow-based. Employees are sharing files, collaborating on teams, editing content, and getting their hands dirty with software on a daily basis. Their activities are action-oriented. They are less concerned with the behind-the-scenes functionality, and more concerned with whether or not the software solution is helping them be more productive throughout the day.

The challenge for IT is to take off its features hat, and think about the end user.

Often, the feature-based experiences that IT departments prefer are not intuitive enough to create simple employee workflows. This causes no end of frustration for the end user, and drives them to find work-arounds to the enterprise software commonly provided by corporate IT departments.

On top of the challenge of marrying the different needs of IT and end users, designing UX for enterprise software comes with an extra layer of difficulty. Unlike startups that are often creating software to test concepts with users, enterprise technologies can’t be built from scratch, or based on a theory. Enterprise software is continuously built upon to meet the expanding need of an established customer base. Enterprise UX designers must work within the constraints of past software versions while trying to make sure the multitudes of end-users are happy and all of IT’s feature-based requirements are met.

Ultimately, companies need IT administrators to make decisions on which software solutions to use, and now they must find those that provide an efficient employee workflow alongside their functionality requirements. The challenge for IT is to take off its features hat, and think about the end user, which, if done correctly, can make or break the design of an enterprise solution.

Imperfect Methods

There are some imperfect UX methods out there, as designers keep trying to blend the needs of IT and end-user. One is to have two "doors" to the software, one for IT and one for employees, so that each can independently operate the solution for their own needs. However, this is only a viable option if the experiences are truly separate, which is often not the case.

The second option is to have one experience for both kinds of users, which is noble and elegant in theory, but horribly flawed in reality. Implementing IT protocols with user workflow tends to overload the employee, and the software loses any simplicity it might have had.

Creating a Bridge Between Two Experiences

The UX method that many companies are working to perfect, including Accellion, where I am Director of Product Experience, is that of the bridge. Beneath an elegant exterior that allows for simple workflows are depths of features, so that IT can revel in all of the dials and levers they dream of, while users have clean, sleek navigation and intuitive workflow processes. Unlike a "door," the concept of a bridge is to make the experience similar for both end-users and IT departments, while providing a way for administrators to dig deeper and bridge the experience with their security needs.

For example, an administrator might be able to manage users directly from within the end user interface, and also click a link that takes them directly to the user management area of administration. The administrator doesn’t have to remember to go to a different site, login, find the user management area and then search for the users, making it more task-based than feature-based. With this style of UX, the average worker can access administrative features—i.e. change their email or profile picture if they need—and those features exist under the easy-to-use surface layer. This way IT administrators have all the features they need, without getting in the way of employees' daily workflows.

So how can enterprise software designers create this bridge in their own work? The key is to think about enterprise solutions through a new lens, and ask the following questions before creating a new feature or workflow:

  • Are there actually two unique classes of users (employees and IT)?
  • What is going to be accomplished in this environment? How can it be made easy and intuitive? Build out against use cases, not features, to simplify the top level.
  • What are the things that employees and IT are trying to get done? Does this new feature or workflow belong behind the bridge or should it be front and center? Be judicious.

Accellion uses the above framework to build bridges into our own products. We recently completed an admin redesign that uses these concepts both within the administrator experience and as a way to switch between end-user and admin interfaces. It's part of a larger product road map we are implementing for the company’s solutions.

Conclusion

In today’s digitally savvy world, end users are making more and more decisions about what they want to get out of software solutions and how they want to experience those solutions. By keeping this in mind, UX teams can be the heroes of their own organizations—building tech experiences that both IT teams and end-users love to use.

 

Image of Florentine bridge courtesy Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Michael Ashley (a.k.a. "Mash"), is the Director of Product Experience for Accellion, which creates secure mobile file-sharing solutions to improve business productivity, ensure compliance, and reduce costs for enterprises. Prior to Accellion, Mash founded FastPencil, a site that helps authors connect, write, publish, and distribute books.

A successful entrepreneur with more than 12 years experience in web applications and Internet publishing, Mash aims to design things that bring people closer, make life better, relationships stronger and communication easier. In his free time you can find him stand-up paddle surfing in his hometown of Santa Cruz, CA.

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Comments

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Nice article, good to see consumerization of IT and high expectations of UX from today's world of work being covered! You can cover both end-users and other stakeholders requirements as part of a well defined user gathering requirements exercise. IT stakeholders and others in the enterprise requirements can be put into the mix with the end users too. For example, access, security, maintenance, training, internal and external exchange of data and other issues can be explored. See the NIST CISU-R for examples: http://zing.ncsl.nist.gov/iusr/documents/CISU-R-IR7432.pdf

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Nice article! Just two thoughts: you might want to think of the 'classes of users' as personas. In my experience (user interface designer for business saas software), one user might sometimes have an admin-hat on, and at other times a regular user-hat.
And I think user stories work better than usecases, since stories always put the emphasis on the user that' trying to accomplish something.

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Thank you Joerg, great points. When I think of a 'class' of users, I'm talking about a completely different kind of user. When I think of a 'persona', I'm usually considering the different flavors within a 'class'. For example, here at Accellion the buyer is very different from the end user. There may be times when the person who buys, configures and deploys our solution will never see the end user interface. Therefore we have two different 'classes'. Within each class we also have different personas, including the end-user-admin who must bridge both worlds. As for user stories vs. use cases, I completely agree... as long as the focus is on the story and not the feature.

-- Mash

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Thanks for the article - always appreciate hearing more re: UX and enterprise software. And timely too - as the UX Product Mgr I'm in the midst of designing an app/feature for editing db tables and properties that can be used from a wide variety of semi- to non-technical roles - ie: technical support, business analysts, account managers and even some super-users at clients. Quite the challenge supporting the workflows of the various roles and providing the depth of experience you describe while ensuring the integrity of the system.

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Great article! Indeed we've been seeing several employees working around IT, either because IT does not have the budget to deliver the required functionality, or because when it does it does so with terrible usability. And, of course, with this work arounds comes the lack of control.

Unfortunately most enterprise IT's do not have the necessary UX skills. But you are right, that needs to evolve because expectations have changed, that's why we've recently published an eBook with the 11 Usability Rules for IT Developers: http://www.outsystems.com/ux-for-it/.

Hope it's also useful to raise the level of awareness of the importance of UX on enterprise applications and that it can be used by enterprise developers to improve their design and usability skills.