Categories:> UX Design

DESIGNING FOR ENTERPRISE AS OPPOSED TO CONSUMER PRODUCTS, IS IT DIFFERENT?

Over the last few years the distinction between designing experiences for Enterprise products versus Consumer products has significantly narrowed and in few scenarios is undistinguishable; thanks to the fast evolving and adopted trend for ‘Consumerization of Enterprise Products’, and the change in user behavioural patterns as well as expectations.

Today, Enterprise users are exposed to a wide array of consumer products as well as social applications in their day-in-life at work and home. Flexible Enterprise policies like ‘BYOD – bring your own device’ and ‘CYOT – choose your own tool’ has fuelled employee exposure to common productivity/communication tools in their work life and has proven to enhance employee productivity. Growing collaboration and accessibility needs (from anywhere and anytime) owing to the change in business dynamics as well as user behaviours have forced enterprise product creators to reshape their strategies (e.g. Microsoft Office vs. Google Docs) and imbibe social platforms as well as features.  The overlapping experiences have uncovered an open design canvas for us ‘the experience designers’ and there is a noticeable change in the design thinking and approach. Mobile, gaming, etc. design paradigms have become a stimulus and seemed to be widely embraced for shaping intuitive and personalised enterprise product experiences.

User interface standardization between consumer and enterprise products is imminent and I believe if design paradigms are embraced responsibly and judiciously can significantly improve product adoption, engagement and user efficacy.

In view of my collaborations with several fortune 500 companies as well as product start-ups serving enterprise as well as consumer needs, there have been interesting learnings, and I believe there are several challenges which still exist in front of us while shaping enterprise product designs. Following are few aspects which may be worth keeping in mind while strategising solutions;

  • Design innovation is important and equally risky if not considered judiciously – as designers we enjoy shaping new design patterns, offer newness to each and every product experience we engage with, and thereby always push boundaries for creating a difference. Yearn for design innovation at every opportunity may at times result in expensive outcomes.Enterprise products usually have significant legacy in terms of front-end / back-end technologies, house features and functionality that have matured with time; are backed by notable customer loyalty and a sizeable end-user base that may have fallen prey to ‘learnt helplessness’. The dynamics places us ‘the designers’ in a tricky situation as weaving radical and rapid innovation to the conventional and learnt interaction patterns may serve detrimental to the perceived product usability, overall user acceptance and bloat support costs.

    Over the last few years I got several opportunities to shape user experience design experiences for enterprise products in the ‘cloud computing, data centre, networking, enterprise security, insurance and banking, employee productivity, healthcare, law and litigation, etc.’ domains and realised that no matter how innovative an experience designers create, certain conventional interaction design paradigms have become an established and comfortable industry norm which are easily accepted by enterprise product companies and well understood by their customers and the product end-users. This could be owing to the fact that many established Enterprise products are progressively migrating to web/thin client and mobile versions. The situation many-at-times brews frustration and is considered as a creativity dampener. Having said that, in my experience it’s better to accept the norm and invest our energies and creativities in other areas of the product experience such as the overall information architecture, user journeys, micro-interactions, messaging, contextual help, etc. which could create a significant difference in the overall product experience. Offering playful and radically new interaction paradigms such as collapsed drawer/hamburger menus which may hide primary gateways under a click, creative iconography based slide-in/out menus which may get hard to relate with thus hamper discoverability, cards as a primary alternative to data-grids which may hamper the data consumption scale, etc. are received as being ‘good looking’ and ‘cool’ by product and marketing teams, however may be perceived as being counter intuitive and inefficient during design validation studies with prospective/actual users and resisted by engineering teams, thus a futile effort.

    A change from customary often induces significant unlearning and learning and may result in being detrimental to overall end-user productivity. As designers we need to be sensitive to the enterprise product ecology and acquaint ourselves with ‘when?’ and ‘where?’ to adopt conventional vs. innovate paradigms thereby keeping existing users happy as well as lowering the barrier for new ones.

  • A ‘T-shaped’ profile is essential – being a designer for a consumer product of which you yourself may be or are a user such as ‘Facebook’, WhatsApp, etc. will be easier to connect with and design for, as opposed to designing experiences for enterprise products which may be full of unknowns. Designing for specialised user profile/s situated in unique environmental setups will require sound domain, technology and contextual understanding. For acquiring complete understanding about the product ecosystem and experiencing what end-users experience, the designer should have the knack and motivation for conducting research studies with Stakeholders as well as End-users. As a result, for designing successful enterprise products being a competent designer may not be enough as ‘the experience designer’ will need to have the qualities of a researcher, understanding about front-end user interface development technologies and its influence on the design, and possess good analytical skills.
  • Success criteria’s are identical and have a long life-span – shaping a consumer product offers the designer quick gratification in terms of public visibility and acknowledgement from thousands of users and hence is usually a sought-after space. As designers we often draw-a-line between business and end-user goals, try and identify commonalities and create a design strategy which will cater to both their needs. In the case of consumer products it so happens that the originally conceived product user interface design experience gets often skewed and diluted with time owing to the disparity between business and user goals resulting in conflicting opinions. e.g. a multimedia product company may focus on monetisation via ads and hence channelize the users experience in a manner that may manoeuvre them in traversing as many ads before accessing the a/v content or intrude with splashing ads while the user is viewing the content. While a end-users goal will be to view a video of interest as quickly as possible without interference.An enterprise product development life cycle could be long and challenging and may take more than a year or two for the complete product to see the light of the day. Having said that, the best part about designing an enterprise product experience is that the business and end-user goals for the majority are identical and remain meaningful for a long time. e.g. employee productivity is directly proportional to enterprise savings/revenue. Hence you will be designing for a common vision with a lasting impact.

    For a consumer product short-cycles of updates are imperative for survival, while in the case of enterprise product design longevity is the key for success.  As a result, it is extremely important to identify the business as well as end-user success criteria’s for an enterprise product carefully and shape the design paradigms with a characteristic of scalability and futurism.

  • End-user profile’s as oppose to persona’s – we generally use the word ‘profile’ and ‘persona’ interchangeably, while their meaning and relevance for intended outcomes are different. ‘User Persona’ being the more commonly used verbiage are descriptive in nature and a semi-fictional representation of an ideal product user. Persona’s work well when the unknowns are high and the product direction has to be shaped on assumed facts about the probable target groups. User Profile’s are prescriptive as they are outlined basis facts and known user data.The user/s for Enterprise products are known and hence outlining a user profile is more relevant in this context as data for each aspect about the specific user will be readily available in the Enterprise. In a recent project engagement we went to the extent of talking with HR representatives for actual job descriptions of targeted user profiles. Subsequently, we also connected with the actual users for contextual understanding and ratification. The exercise gave us a deep-rooted understanding about the end-users psyche, goals, motivations and uncovered few extremely insightful day-in-life nuances which otherwise could have been overlooked, resulting in skewed outcomes.
  • Design paradigms with a characteristic of futurism – Enterprises could have a world-class looking web product, a friendly mobile application, and an awesome CRM system, having said that if you were to ask them ‘Are your int./ext. product ecosystems connected?’ the answers would usually be ‘NO’, ‘NOT REQUIRED’, ‘NOT YET’, ‘HOPEFULLY SOON’, ‘THAT’S WHY WE ARE TALKING TO YOU’ and so on. As designers we invest a lot of our time and energy acquiring a holistic perspective about the product ecosystem during the very early stages of a project engagement, and in the case of a legacy enterprise product you would have often made suggestions such as ‘Shaping an omni-channel experience will increase user productivity and save operational costs’, ‘A responsive, adaptive or hybrid experience may be more suitable from a futuristic product adoption/usage perspective based on foreseen changes in user behavioural patterns’, etc. While the stakeholders will appreciate all suggestions and personally would have loved to pursue the ideal path, more often than not, the design scope usually gets curtailed by a myopic need owing to budgetary and time-to-release constraints. Thus, resulting in adopting a blinkered and tactical approach for shaping the product user experience design. More so, the race against time often steers designers towards cutting-corners for faster outcomes.Learnings from past project experiences have made me believe that as designers we should always shape design paradigms for futurism despite the immediate/near-term needs thus mitigate impending risks. If we adopt basic design fundamentals about adaptive/responsive grid structures, atomic and modular design components, fluid layouts, as well as scalable graphic and font libraries, the product design foundation will be robust and prepared for absorbing future needs. There may be a delta from originally planned effort/time, having said that, the quality of outcomes will be worth every penny invested.
  • Primarily mouse/keyboard driven behaviour – The advent of touch-enabled interfaces has significantly influenced the design language of products (e.g. large tappable areas/objects, gesture-driven interactions). By virtue of everyday digital interactions we tend to ignore the usage of mouse and keyboard as an integral input device for enterprise applications, thereby leading to overlooked behaviours, and not the most optimum layouts for immediate to near-term needs, etc. The situation would often result in cycles of negotiation with the product owners and engineers, and skewed outcomes.While, there is nothing wrong in designing for the future, as experience designers its critical to ensure that our decisions do not compromise the immediate and near-term goals. In a past project we mitigated a similar situation by introducing viewing modes (alike Gmail – Comfort, Cosy, Compact) and adopted adaptive design constructs for fluidity and scale. In doing so, easily accommodated immediate, near-term and long-term goals from the business as well as users perspective and offered a higher level of control.
  • Accessibility – Have you ever experienced customers shooting back about the interface colours being washed-out and not appealing at their end. Our fondness for Apple Mac machines is the cause. As designers, we diligently conduct all colour anomaly tests in our systems before delivering the artefacts to our customers and many-a-times tend to forget that the customer/end-user machines in the enterprise world are mostly Windows-based PC’s/Laptops. Try viewing your visual designs on a standard Windows-based PC and you will realise the reason for customers straining their cords. As a process its important you test your visual designs across different machines and displays including standard windows-based PC’s and Laptops. The traditional test for colour contrast wherein you take a B/W print-out of your designs works well as well.
  • Intensive training and specialists for customisation is passé – How many times have you really needed to scan help files or seek long-hours of assistance while interacting with a consumer product? Generally your answer will be none or insignificant. In a situation wherein the assistance required is high, the product adoption curve is extremely low and a high drop-off rate is experienced. In today’s day-and-age, customers and end-users expect a similar experience while interacting with enterprise products. Customers of your product would not like to create heavy dependency on their vendors for smooth functioning of their enterprise applications and business. While end-users would like an experience that aligns with their innate behaviour, and reliance on training, as well as support channels for everyday work-life needs is considered as a barrier.

Looking forward to learning about your experiences.

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