The next UX frontier: a simpler view of enterprise applications

Users want the same ease of mobile and cloud apps in their workplace applications. This requires stepping up the commitment to application design.

The mobile smartphone and cloud revolution changed employees' expectations about user experience. Essentially, consumer apps have spoiled them forever. As Rasmus Skjoldan of Magnolia put it in a recent article, "it dawned on everyone that it just wasn't humane to have great UX in your private life and nauseating mazes of software to fight against at work." The overriding mission of the burgeoning UX movement became making enterprise software as simple (and even potentially fun) as mobilized consumer apps, as well as cloud services.

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Photo: HubSpot

It's been several years now since this epic battle for enterprise simplicity began -- and we've only made halting progress, Skjoldan relates. The challenge is that enterprise users access and use multiple apps at the same time, and the UX for these situations is far less than optimal. It's time now to focus on what Skjoldan calls "cross-application usability." The integrated suites larger vendors offer a converged UX, of course -- but enterprises don't rely on one single vendor for everything.

As he explains, it's all about the data:

"Cross-application usability goes way beyond merely sharing data between applications. It is about injecting analytics data in just the right places in the experience planner, about administering the correct dose of SEO suggestions in the content authoring interface. Or about receiving notifications from other applications that inform your work in the UI currently open. When third-party data reaches the user at the contextually optimal time, it has massive impact on experience quality."

Achieving superior UX itself is a straightforward challenge, but the complexity of multiple applications with many data sources and endpoints makes things interesting, as explained by :Jonathan Walter and Chris Braunsdorf. "Enterprise software is usually highly specialized and complex," they say. "These can be massive products that experts use for several hours every day to get critical work done. UX designers and researchers working in enterprise domains face a steep learning curve."

Skjoldan urges more attention on "designing the user experience between engagement analytics, optimization software and experience management. It is a matter of directing design resources to the internal workflows with the aim to improve the customer experience in the end. Those who work in user experience and service design intimately know how to do that. They just need to be nudged in that direction."

One approach that is gaining attention is a discipline called "DesignOps," which calls for enabling application designers to focus on design while leaving everything else to the operations team. There is even a DesignOps conference, which is being held for the second year in a row. DesignOps is intended to helps UX designers focus on users and products. In their latest online book, a team of UX designers led by Kate Battles makes the case for DesignOps.

Dave Malouf, a contributor to the book, recounts how during his days at Rackspace, he helped create a three-track methodology for designing applications, consisting of discovery, delivery and understanding. "Given my exposure to DevOps and my close working relationship with IT operations, it was a natural next step for me to christen tri-track as a new 'thing' called design operations," Malouf says. "My mission for the practice of DesignOps is to amplify the value of design. Design as a practice requires a singular focus on the operations that maintain the best interests of design and an organization's business."

Collin Whitehead of Dropbox. also a contributor to the book, explains that DesignOps is implemented as operations support, in which "the DesignOps role sets standards and refines processes for the entire design team," or for project support, in which "the DesignOps role embeds into each specific project workflow to drive and improve the creative process in partnership with design leadership."

An important piece of the DesignOps journey is recognizing that "Whether in an operations or project support role, the DesignOps function is there to push projects forward while providing creative teams the space and time to create," says Whitehead. "As design teams and companies invest in DesignOps, they'll realize better creative results faster, and they'll see how better work processes can impact the entire culture of collaboration."