User Experience as a Differentiator in the Enterprise Space
Of course, not all enterprise-software companies consider user experience only as an afterthought. There are some companies that invest in User Experience and empower their UX researchers and designers to help create better products. In a domain that is full of solutions that are difficult to use, the benefits of a well-designed user experience are obvious: cost savings for both the enterprise company and its customers.
What if enterprise companies that have institutionalized User Experience marketed their investment in User Experience as a competitive advantage? Simply making prospective customers aware of the costs that are associated with a poorly designed product and providing assurances of a rigorous, user-centered design and development process would seemingly go a long way. Plus, investing in User Experience provides the opportunity to look beyond cost savings to actually help generate revenue.
How to Improve the User Experience of Enterprise Software
To bring truly meaningful, systemic change to User Experience in an enterprise-focused company, you need an executive leadership team that understands the potential impacts and consequences of delivering optimally designed enterprise products. Convincing just a single executive-level leader through a small project that is well documented and scoped could lead to significant change.
Placing strategic focus on universal and standard functions and features is a great place to start. For example, my team serves the IT Service Management (ITSM) industry. Our primary product is an IT support-desk ticketing system. Support teams spend most of their time documenting and analyzing customer issues, so there are a lot of forms for data collection.
By considering well-established UX research on form design in light of key performance indicators (KPIs) for our users—support representatives and their managers—we’re able to stress to our management just how critical it is that support representatives be able to get through a given form with as little friction as possible. In fact, we measure the performance of individual representatives, which is a big factor in how our customers determine resource allocation and employee performance.
Many of the legacy forms in our core product had multi-column layouts. To some, this might seem like a common-sense way of making the most of the available screen real estate, but plenty of extant research demonstrates that multi-column forms actually slow users down.
Baymard Institute is a fantastic resource for usability-study findings, and they’ve published a study on multi-column forms. According to their research, users often misinterpret how to use multi-column forms and in ways that differ. Some users think they should work from left to right, all the way down the page. Others think they should fill out one entire column, then the next. Still other users assume the second column is optional, as Figure 1 shows.
Image source: Baymard Institute
Luke Wroblewski, UX expert and now a Google product director, wrote Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks, relying extensively on original eye-tracking research and drawing similar conclusions regarding horizontally aligned field labels and single-column layouts. Matteo Penzo also conducted eyetracking studies and presented similar findings regarding label placement and alignment in his UXmatters article “Label Placement in Forms.”
Prior to conducting any original UX research, we were able to identify a fairly serious UX-design issue that had a big impact on our customers’ KPIs. Reporting this issue to our Product and Engineering colleagues and presenting an alternative solution helped us build their trust in User Experience. Because forms are ubiquitous within our flagship product, our research demonstrated how User Experience can have a positive impact on business objectives.
Now, at least part of our product is working well for everyone. Our UX team has created standards for form design. Our developers know these standards, so building new forms requires less communication, there’s less confusion, and less cruft gets built into forms. Quality Assurance also knows these standards, so they can focus on building scripts that test whether forms function according to specifications. Plus, our Training team no longer has to train users on how to use the most common interaction elements in the digital space. All of this leads to fewer design-related calls to our Support team.
Ultimately, User Experience helps users do their jobs more efficiently and our software better meets the needs of the businesses they work for. Not only do users spend less time trying to understand how to create a support ticket, they spend less time performing this task, which improves their performance on their own KPIs.
No enterprise vendor should simply accept as fact that their software is inherently complicated and hard to use. Instead, they should embrace every opportunity to make their software less complicated and easier to use by hiring qualified UX professionals to ensure that they’re delivering high-quality user experiences and by leveraging standard design elements that adhere to best practices. This is the only way to avoid adding more technical and UX debt to their product and putting more strain on their customers. It all comes down to saving time and money, and that’s in everyone’s best interest.