The user experience of enterprise technology

A discussion on enterprise systems for business and why the user experience of these systems are so poor.

Most big businesses globally are locked into some kind of reliance on enterprise technology.

Unfortunately such systems are not only fiendishly difficult to install and maintain, but often equally challenging for the workforce to use. When the stakes are so high, why is the user experience of enterprise systems so bad? Enterprise systems tend to be large scale business software products, which allow employees in an organisation to share information and to generally make sense of the complex data sets that large businesses tend to produce.

In order to do so, an enterprise product must be installed, configured, and where necessary, customised to meet the needs of the organisation. Such is the complexity involved in simply turning on the likes of Oracle, SAP and many Microsoft products that an entire industry of systems ‘integrators’ exists just to support businesses in this task.

The problem from a user experience perspective is that enterprise systems are generally procured and implemented with the focus purely on solving problems for the business with little attention paid to who the users are and how they want to work.

Many of these systems are remarkable products in terms of their power and capabilities. When businesses buy them, they are effectively buying the promise of order and simplicity being brought to sizeable and complicated business problems. Unfortunately, once installed and configured, many systems merely reflect the organisation’s complexity and reveal this to the user in their design.

Although one increasingly hears the language of UX used by IT vendors, it is quite clear that for many such outfits, ‘user experience’ equates to little more than ‘user interface design’. This demonstrates a very low level understanding of the role UX should play in providing upfront user insight and driving the design of systems.

The result of this lack of user-awareness is that enterprise IT vendors and their business customers often build unfounded assumptions about users into the system – which in turn can lead to a deeply flawed user experience. The consequences of being wrong on this kind of scale can be highly damaging. Companies can find themselves stuck for years with the legacy of a difficult to use, inefficient system with higher-than-expected ongoing costs for user training and helpdesk support to compensate.

In scenarios like the above, I find that certain myths and fallacies are commonly used as reasons/excuses for a failure to deliver the required user experience. Although not exhaustive, I’ve found the following to be among the most common and harmful:

Myth #1: “Our system is too important/complicated to be user-friendly”

Sadly this view is still quite prevalent in the world of enterprise, where user experience is often mistaken for superficial tweaking and dandifying of the front end.

It’s also patent nonsense: companies like 37signals and Fog Creek have been producing serious, web-based business tools with excellent user experience for several years. If you still believe in this fallacy, I’m assuming you work on an IT helpdesk in an enterprise business. Why? Because only turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. Better user experience leads to fewer tickets being raised, lowered training costs and fewer change requests.

Myth #2: The Myth of Compliance

This is the idea that – despite all available evidence – a business process with user poor compliance rates can be made mandatory by hard-coding it into task flows and screen designs. This ignores the fact that a large organisation, its staff and technology forma complex system which is likely to exhibit unexpected behaviours, or put more simply, people don’t comply with stuff that makes their day more difficult – even at work.

If the system constantly gets in their way, users generally find workarounds in the system, or just ignore it completely. Either way, the system is now as broken as the promise of 100% compliance (I spoke more about the Myth of Compliance in this talk).

Myth #3: Data = Information

The tendency of businesses to perversely model, store and report as much data as possible reminds me of the notoriously convoluted MS PowerPoint slide which caused US General McChrystal to remark: “When we understand that slide, we’ll have won the war.”

It’s a common human fallacy that if we fail to see or take account of information we are somehow losing control. In fact, many studies of decision making support the central idea of Barry Schwartz‘s famous 2003 book The Paradox of Choice. This phrase has been widely bandied around, but very simply, Schwartz argues that too much choice leads to decision paralysis.

The entire history of human factors engineering demonstrates that most really good information is about presenting the clarity that comes from less. People make surprisingly good decisions based on very little information. The trick for designers is to ensure that the little they do have is the right information.

What of the cost to businesses then? Well, quite aside from the huge cost of procuring and integrating an enterprise system, once plumbed in these technologies quite literally become part of the DNA of an organisation.

I’m not pretending for an instant that designing good user experience for complex organisations is easy, or even cheap. However the required investment in user-centred design is likely to be a fraction of the overall cost of implementing a system. Given that the alternative can mean years of institutional inefficiencies, upfront investment in user experience doesn’t seem such a bad idea, now does it?

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