Enterprise UX: Past, present and future

Consumerisation, the cloud and mobility have transformed enterprise software, which in the future will be influenced by wearables, the IoT, virtual and augmented reality, and artificial intelligence.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor

Anyone who has worked in a large company on a traditional enterprise application -- be it part of an ERP suite, standalone CRM, BI, accounting or HR software, or a production tool such as a content management system -- will know what a less-than-perfect user experience (UX) looks and feels like. Usually this is because the functional aspects of the workflow in question have been prioritised, with user interface design relegated to a bolted-on afterthought. The result? Dissatisfied users, delivering lower productivity than they would if a high-quality UX had been factored into the development process from the outset.

These days, you're as likely to encounter enterprise software as a browser-based SaaS application, or as a mobile app on a tablet or smartphone, as you are a traditional client-server application on a desktop PC or laptop. But even in the cloud/mobile world, the UX factor is vital for enterprise software: employees who routinely use all manner of consumer apps and services -- which live or die by the quality of the user experience -- are not going to stand for inferior interfaces just because they happen to be at work.

Enterprises are increasingly realising that good design is good for business. In an attempt to quantify this, the Design Management Institute and Motiv Strategies, an innovation consultancy, have created a Design Value Index (DVI) -- a market capitalization-weighted index comprised of 16 design-driven companies -- and demonstrated 10-year returns of 219 percent over the S&P 500 between 2004 and 2014:

Image: Design Management Institute

Of course, the design DNA of these companies encompasses a lot more than just enterprise software, but as the DMI points out: "Given the proliferation of software, apps, games, web design, and other types of digital interfaces that support every imaginable product, service, and solution being created today, user experience (UX) design is now a dominant and growing force in the design profession, outpacing the growth seen in other design disciplines."

The DMI quotes IBM's General Manager of Design Phil Gilbert, who said: "The world is being rewritten in code. We had a very strong design heritage, very much in the marketing and communications areas and in industrial design, but never in software. And that is where we are concentrating our [investments in design]: on the high-growth areas." IBM has recently published its ideas in a document entitled 'IBM Design Thinking: Human-centred outcomes at speed and scale'.

Not so long ago, statements and initiatives like this would have been unheard-of from an enterprise software company. Here's another one, from SAP: "Using the principles of design thinking, we maintain our core value of listening to our customers' needs and quickly incorporating their feedback into SAP products. With the influence of consumer software making its way into the enterprise, SAP's UX strategy aims to meet users' expectations of easy-to-use software in the workplace."

So, design-driven companies tend to succeed, today's 'consumer employees' have raised expectations for the usability of enterprise software, and enterprise software players are beginning to take notice. But how can businesses actually deliver on these expectations?

UX design today

Design stands little chance of becoming part of a company's DNA unless it's championed in the C-suite and implemented effectively throughout the organisation.

Perhaps the best example of 'design thinking' residing at the top of a company is Steve Jobs at Apple, who summed up his approach in 1997, on his return from NeXT to the then-struggling company, like this: "You've got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology -- you can't start with the technology and try to figure out where you're going to try and sell it."

Jobs may have championed design thinking at Apple, but most of the nuts and bolts were implemented by a designer he plucked from relative obscurity within the company -- Jony Ive (who is now responsible for the look and feel of Apple software, as well as hardware design).

Jobs and Ive oversaw the creation of a run of products -- iMac, iPod, MacBook, iPhone, iPad -- that made Apple the huge success it is today. But, recalling the company's comeback in a recent interview, Ive stressed that even in Apple's darkest hour, design and user experience came first: "It takes a tremendous courage, when you're losing fabulously large amounts of money, to say 'the goal isn't turnaround, our goal is to make a great product'. That's not a natural reflex to that situation -- the reflex is, 'let's not spend this money and let's try and get a little bit more, because we're about to go out of business'."

Although manifestly successful in Apple's case, this 'intuition-driven' approach is not the only way. In a 2014 webinar, Gartner research VP Ray Valdes contrasts it with the empirical, 'evidence-based' approach typified by Google (and most famously by Marissa Mayer when she was the search company's product chief):

Image: Gartner

Google's design thinking is now encapsulated in its evolving Material Design guidelines, which provide a detailed framework for creating a consistent look-and-feel on desktop, tablet and smartphone devices.

Enterprise apps -- internally built or packaged -- don't fare too well when placed on a grid defined by the intuition/evidence-based spectrum, according to Gartner's Valdes:

Image: Gartner

Improvements can be made to enterprise apps via the intuitive or the evidence-based approach, or some hybrid of the two, says Valdes, but there are potential roadblocks along the way: intuitive design talent may be hard to find and recruit; the tools for evidence-based design may be lacking; or the business processes may not be in place to implement a hybrid strategy.

Best practice UX methodology, according to Gartner, looks like this:

Image: Gartner

However, if designers, developers and stakeholders fail to communicate effectively, the result is likely to be delayed projects with unsatisfactory outcomes. For example, a 2014 survey by enterprise mobility company Kony found that the main reasons for user interface changes during the development process were: the UI never being locked down; stakeholders finding UI issues only when they got to use a working app; and the UI failing to address one or more functional requirements. Designers also cited communicating input back to developers on the mobile app prototype, and collaboration during the development cycle generally, as the most challenging aspects of their jobs.

A more recent survey, from mobile app development platform provider Telerik, found that a third of the .NET developers canvassed use a designer for app layouts and screens, while the majority use basic elements from a front-end development framework such as Bootstrap:

Image: ZDNet / Data: Telerik

Given the prevalence of design thinking (be it intuitive, evidence-based or hybrid), copious advice on best-practice methodologies, and the availability of both trained UX designers and capable front-end development frameworks, it's perhaps no surprise that terrible user experiences with enterprise software are fast becoming a thing of the past.

UX in the 'post-app' world

Looking ahead, there are multiple technology developments underway that will affect how user experiences -- for both consumers and business users -- are created. Wearables, IoT devices, virtual and augmented reality, and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) will all profoundly change the way humans and computers interact with one another, and with the world around them. Gesture and voice control, for example, are set to play an increasingly important roles.

The emerging umbrella term for where all this is heading is the 'post-app' world of pervasive computing, where desktop WIMP and mobile touch-driven interfaces are augmented or superseded by more 'natural' methods of user interaction. Some even go so far as to claim that, as the IoT and AI advance, designing for screens will "belong in the past" and that "the next big step will be for the very concept of the 'device' to fade away".

Gestures feature prominently in the Minority Report-style interface for Mezzanine, a high-end presentation/collaboration solution from Los Angeles-based Oblong Industries. The Hollywood reference is apt because Oblong CEO (and ex-MIT researcher) John Underkoffler designed the UIs for that movie, and subsequently realised them in product form in the shape of Mezzanine.


Oblong Industries' Mezzanine presentation/collaboration system uses spatially tracked handheld 'wands' to provide Minority Report-style pointing control.

Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

A lot of attention is currently focused on voice-driven virtual assistants (VAs), which all of the leading tech companies are pursuing apace -- Apple with Siri, Microsoft with Cortana, Google with Google Now and Amazon with Alexa, to name several general-purpose examples.

Voice specialist Nuance is also a leading player in this area, with products targeted specifically at the automotive, enterprise customer service and IoT markets in the shape of Dragon Drive, Nina and Nuance Mix respectively. Because of the variety of potential use cases (smart home, gaming, robotics, health and fitness, for example), the IoT-focused Nuance Mix is a development platform that gives access to the company's voice recognition, natural language understanding and text-to-speech technology, allowing developers to create customised user experiences.

In the business arena, Microsoft has previewed integration between Cortana and the Power BI business analytics suite, providing a natural-language voice- or text-driven interface for querying and visualising enterprise data. Cortana uses Power BI's Q&A data search feature to help answer questions, and can also surface hidden patterns in the data using Quick Insights functionality. Along with the Cortana Intelligence Suite, these tools allow business users to interact with data in a more natural way:


Power BI users can now query Microsoft's Cortana (via voice or text) about key business data.

Image: Microsoft

Facebook recently stepped into the post-app world with the announcement at its F8 conference of AI-driven bots for the Messenger Platform. The idea is that, via the Messenger Send/Receive API, various discovery tools and Wit.ai's bot engine, businesses will have access to tools for creating customer interactions "in a way that is contextual, convenient, and delightful, with control at its core," according to VP of messaging products David Marcus. Facebook is also, via its Oculus Rift platform, investing heavily in VR, which CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees as the next big thing after mobile:


Facebook's 10-year plan includes bringing internet access to the masses, artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Image: Facebook

User experience will be vital if VR and AR are to be widely adopted in business, but according to Oblong's John Underkoffler "No-one's really talking about, or writing about, or as far as we can tell very much working on, UI in the context of VR and AR -- which makes it both an enormous liability and an enormous opportunity."

"The history of the last 20 years of UI development has been very cyclical, with no actual forward motion," he continues. "The web comes along in, let's say, 1995 and the idea is we're all supposed to stay in the web browser. But it was exceedingly primitive, and only in the last few years has the user experience in the web browser gotten back up to the level of nuance and sophistication that native interfaces had in 1995. Then, just as the web is struggling to its feet, we've got to go mobile. Now we've got tablets and smartphones, except that these fantastic portable devices have very limited UIs -- touch is fun, but it's much less capable as a UI than the old keyboard and mouse."

"The AR and VR experience does not actually have room to try and build that same interface yet again -- Lawnmower Man and those early VR visions showed people in avatar form having to reach out and touch buttons in space. I think people know that isn't going to work, which means that if people grab the opportunity appropriately, this really is the chance to build something new -- a UI that's really going to jump us forward. To some extent, that's what we've been doing at Oblong."

It will be fascinating to see how these new technologies integrate with tried-and-tested methods to create new user experiences. It's unlikely that any one interface style will become as dominant as WIMP has been over the last 30 years -- the sheer variety of connected devices and use cases will see to that. Instead, the balance between voice, gestures, touch, keyboard and mouse will need to be tailored to the particular mix of devices concerned, and the context in which they're being used.

Because there will be myriad UI options in the post-app world, it will be vital that users receive clear signals about exactly what's available, and when. How often, for example, have you prodded hopefully at a screen, unsure whether or not it's touch-enabled? And in the case of AI-driven chatbots, it will also be essential that their behaviour can be customised by the user to avoid them becoming an over-intrusive annoyance.

Although the UX world is changing fast, there's still a long way to go. For example, Telerik's recent survey of .NET developers asked whether apps for Microsoft's HoloLens 'mixed-reality' headset or Windows IoT Core were on the menu. The replies suggest we're unlikely to see a flood of software for these platforms anytime soon:

Image: ZDNet / Data: Telerik


If you interact with enterprise software today, you're almost certainly getting a far better user experience than you did a decade ago, thanks to the influence of consumerisation, the cloud and mobility. The UX picture for the next decade is still taking shape, but will be influenced by the rise of wearables, the Internet of Things, virtual and augmented reality, and artificial intelligence. The designers and developers who create these experiences will have a richer set of options and tools to play with, but will need to use them wisely.

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