Consumer apps raised the bar for enterprise app design, panel says

The cost of an "ugly" enterprise app isn't cheap, and it can make or break a new business. Learn how to avoid this pitfall.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The unfortunate stereotype for enterprise apps is that they're ugly, but that just doesn't cut it as the industry moves into the cloud. In fact, even if the app works well, if it doesn't look good, it could cost a company big time in the end.

One reason for that is that most Internet users are just accustomed to better user interfaces and experiences delivered by consumer apps. So the belief then is that they shouldn't have to expect anything less on enterprise apps.

However, for enterprise leaders and developers that find themselves lost when it comes to designing an attractive business app that still gets the job done, there is hope. 

A collective of tech industry leaders gathered for a panel discussion at MobileBeat 2012 on Tuesday afternoon, offering some direct advice on how to avoid building an "ugly" enterprise app.

Put most simply, at the core level, if it doesn't make you excited then it's not a good design, according to Ketan Anjaria, founder of the digital business card startup CardFlick.

Jaan Orvet, creative head at digital design agency Nansen, concurred and added further that a good enterprise app should be something you want to come back to and be "driven more by that than just the need to use it. 

Anjaria tacked another pointed tip: don't be cheap.

"A lot of people don't spend money on design," he said. "You have to involve a designer from the beginning."

Of course, that's a lot easier said than done -- especially for startups without big budgets or a lot of funding yet. The only way to drive up that funding base might be to prove how worthy an app really is.

Sequoia Capital partner Tim Lee remarked that you could actually precisely measure how engaged and delighted users are by the app experience by looking at metrics about daily active users.

Lee also commented that his venture capital firm often receives visits from a lot of CIOs interested in learning as much as they can about the latest trends in order to jump on them before its too late.

"The more forward-thinking CIOs realize that without them doing anything," Lee explained about trends such as BYOD (bring-your-own device) and installing apps such as Dropbox and Evernote without going through IT or the CIO's office first.

For business that really might not know where to start, Lee said that there are "a lot of reference points in the consumer world," advising enterprises to check up on app stores and see what types of user experiences that startups are coming up with.

At the same time, enterprises need to consider two trends that an app would play into: mobile and cloud.

Zendesk CEO Mikkel Svane asserted that it doesn't make sense not to move stuff to the cloud anymore. Beyond that, Svane added that you need to think about the APIs first and build applications upon those. 

Svane even posited that it would be easier to go mobile and build upon different types of interfaces.

However, Lee warned that designing and thinking for 3- to 4-inch screens involves an entirely different mindset.  A company like Evernote is focused on making their product work well on any device, Lee explained, especially on a mobile device with a touch display.

Anjaria quipped, "Web design is like a poem. Mobile design is like a haiku." The point is for mobile design is that you don't have as much of the user's attention, making the process of attracting and retaining users all the more difficult.

"The paradigms have shifted and now its a non-focused experience," Anjaria said. "You have a few seconds to help them get their tasks done."


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