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Stepping Up: UX in the Enterprise

These are exciting times for design. The market now expects well-designed products, and more importantly, the good experiences they bring. Further, it is now recognized, albeit sometimes reluctantly or late in the process, that designers are an indispensable part of a product development team.

A line drawing of a complex knot pattern
Figure 1. Credit: ‘Sheet Bend Double Knot’ by Darrin Higgins, The Noun Project.

When it exists, this reluctance is a shadow of old-style thinking best typified by historical enterprise software development. We all recognize these projects—the large B2B technology initiatives that have conquered markets en masse by offering an ever-growing breadth of features serving everyone, although not necessarily anyone well in particular.

And yet, even this last bastion of questionable products with unquestionably bad experiences are being transformed. From mavericks to blue chip staples, the industry is abuzz with enterprise user experience. The start-ups of a few years ago have matured sufficiently to challenge the old leaders and now push them to compete not just on technology alone, but on the strength of the product(s) in their entirety.

This is indeed good news for end users, businesses, and design. It is also an unprecedented challenge. With enterprise software comes a level of multifaceted complexity that ranges from technological requirements and legal constraints to sometimes contradictory business logic and interconnected use cases. All of this happens on an enormous scale and is tangled up into a mission critical knot. Dealing with this knot requires more than a Gordian solution of getting a larger pair of scissors and scaling UX resources. Throwing more people at the problem does not always solve it.

Instead, design—the essential practice that remains in perpetual search of its elusive definition—needs to step up its presence and scope in enterprise software companies. This requires a critical look at the practice, organization, and delivery of design and how it can fulfill specific enterprise needs.

Enterprise within the Digital Economy

Twenty years ago Don Tapscott coined the term “Digital Economy,” and when it recently became a reality, organizations were forced to adapt to changes that go beyond digital. Their entire infrastructure had to shift in order to fit a new way of doing business online. Although the word digital tends to refer to interactions that occur through a computer interface, focusing solely on the digital elements would create dangerously myopic solutions, optimizing flawed concepts and automating broken or redundant workflows. The approach, although good in its intent, falls far short of the optimization desired for the actual solution.

Andrew (not his real name) came to us through a reference. He was relatively new to his company, a specialized publishing business, and charged with leading an effort to transform back office operations. These were obscured by numerous traditions that folded one over the other into a self-protective cocoon of unchallenged and largely un-optimized processes. He arrived with two words on his lips: optimization and automation.

The story he laid out reads like a chapter from a book on typical enterprise maladies. It goes something like this: Over the last few decades the company has grown organically and through acquisition. This meant that there were numerous platforms (several dozen in fact), often incompatible with each other, but patched and bridged over by the ingenious, if sometimes incomprehensible, work of engineers. With each new growth spurt, new patches were laid over the old ones.

But these were mostly technology problems the company was already aware of and working on—with us as a technology partner—as part of a phased solution. What made our team particularly attractive to Andrew was the human element that we were able to address through our design approach.

Namely, the engineering patchwork forced the staff to create workarounds in their processes. In addition, departments lived in their own sector silos, with little cross-department visibility and connectivity, resulting in duplication, redundancy, and further inefficiency. Over time, external factors such as market changes, business initiatives, and legislation built new logic on top of the old, layering ever-new behavioral patterns until they became permanently embroidered into the actual company processes. To improve the platform as Andrew needed us to do, we had to look at the processes and business practices first, challenging and optimizing them before even thinking about redesigning the screens.

Never purists, we borrowed heavily, incorporating service design methods into our existing process and ultimately learning a great deal from the sibling discipline. This was more than merely adding another exercise or step to an existing process; integrating ideas from different disciplines (no matter how closely related) revealed new concerns to be addressed and forced changes in our approach.

Since we had worked on similar problems before, we were aware that such fundamental process adjustments might have an impact on the department’s organizational structure. Fortunately, Andrew embraced this possibility. He supported our initiative to look at processes and behaviors through functional and anthropological lenses simultaneously, even when results caused business restructuring and organizational change. Only once this work was complete were we ready to approach the more standard UX process and look at the actual platform.

This was a fundamental need for the business. Once we understood the business objectives, as well as human behaviors, we provided advice and suggestions on the internal process. During joint consultations we also suggested the reshuffling of teams in order to optimize the process further. This work allowed Andrew to review the processes afresh, address long overdue inefficiencies, and systematically rebuild operational workflows.

Up-skilling UX

Although design may not be the first thing someone thinks of when addressing complex people or process issues in a company, its presence is needed more than ever. What makes design—UX in particular—especially relevant in this context is its focus on users. David Kelley of IDEO emphasizes human factors at large. The implication is that anything and everything that affects the operation of a final product or service—and the experience of using it—is a design problem. Thus, the logic goes, it is design’s actual responsibility to understand and tackle these issues, even if some of them historically fall outside its scope.

What makes such an endeavor easier is that at a non-artisan level, design is a chameleon discipline. It is well-positioned to create new expertise, absorb relevant and related existing practices, and evolve its own thinking in order to achieve its ultimate goal of creating products, services, and outcomes. In this, design, UX, and service design in particular is similar to business—defined by its goal rather than the tool it uses to achieve it.

Service design

The up-skilling of UX with aspects of service design seems quite natural. Strategically analyzing and establishing structure and process before addressing the actual experience would appear the most sensible approach. At the same time, assessing and redefining the services and their workflows through blueprints pairs quite organically with creating personas and journey maps, building service architectures, and writing user stories.

Although not yet mainstream, this process isn’t necessary novel; it has already been practiced by a small number of agencies and consultancies. IDEO and Fjord (Accenture Interactive) come to mind.

Organizational change

Beyond learning from sibling disciplines, like service design, UX also stands to learn more from business management. Returning to Andrew’s case, what we were facing was the potential of having to deal with organizational restructuring, a complex and thankless process at best. Moreover, it is usually conducted internally or by specialized consultants, not by design or technology teams.

Hence, we saw our role in the process not as the owner, but as augmenting the restructuring process with bottom-up tools of user research. Our fundamental responsibility was detecting and defining grass roots problems and proposing and implementing programs on a functional and experience level. While ever-curious about cross-discipline approaches and expanding the domain of our knowledge, we remain designers.

Dealing with restructuring on a strategic and execution level is a top-down approach that most businesses are indeed better positioned to handle. The place where the two streams meet is where change management needs to take place in order for risk to turn into success.

Change management

Our discipline is often very proud of its track record in innovation––from new products to transforming whole industries. And rightly so, since this is where the design’s focus has been for the most part. But it’s time we looked beyond the products to our larger impact. As Joseph Schumpeter warned, innovation is as creative as it is destructive. In enterprises in particular, where success has the dimensions of scale and time, innovation without sustainability is a non-solution. Hence, enabling platforms––and organizations that use platforms––to adapt and evolve together within the context of its use is where UX must focus more.

In the enterprise especially, change management should not be left to business management staff alone to tackle. Adoption is a key factor here, an area to which UX has already greatly contributed. Equally, business teams often lack the complete set of tools, expertise, and processes required to tackle the different, changing, and nuanced behavioral needs within a product lifecycle.

UX can address these issues by expanding its existing reach in the following areas:

  • Research, consultations and training: Utilize design research to understand human factors, identify pain points, and develop hypotheses; facilitate resolution through workshops; create training programs when necessary.
  • On-screen support: Create on-boarding scenarios, tooltips, contextual help, and system directories.
  • Localization & language optimization: On a purely UX level, align experiences appropriately across cultural and language standards.
  • Corrective analytics: Identify, set, and monitor analytics to surface system behavioral patterns; utilize insight to address long-term strategy, correct programs, and reinforce change.

Data analytics

Corrective analytics is a subset of the much larger data analytics practice. Monitoring systems’ performance is a fairly standard practice for most platforms. It is mostly a technical endeavor, however. Such a mono-disciplinary approach tends to create equally one-dimensional solutions, often resulting in a single use case with unoptimized insight access and specialist knowledge to facilitate.

User experience can enable broader business audiences, in particular their non-technical managerial staff, to improve performance through analytics. Powered by machine learning and combined with its data visualization capabilities capturing behavioral patterns, design can dynamically surface personalized insight. The two main purposes for the business would be to (a) monitor existing services, processes and performance for optimization, and (b) analyze, discover, and prototype new services, processes, and optimization methods.

UX is particularly well positioned to tackle the challenge of facilitating discovery. As another of our clients recently told us, “I can’t tell you what I want, because I don’t know what I don’t know yet.” The potent combination of understanding users and shaping experiences can empower management’s decision-making by surfacing user-specific insights and unknown connections in a way that is clear, immediate, effortless, and engaging.

Design as a Service

If enterprise software has indeed matured, then the disciplines involved in its creation, and UX specifically, must grow accordingly in order to match the emerging task. To mature, however, requires more than learning new skills and creating new methodologies. In addition, these skills and methodologies must be complemented by the way in which they are offered and delivered, all within a sustainable commercial framework.

The primary challenges with UX result directly from the enterprise’s need for flexibility and scale. While most enterprise projects are large and complex, the actual number of design professionals needed to be effective is small relative to the overall staff. Also, the projects themselves fluctuate in volume and type of activity throughout the project lifecycle.

Design services appear in many shapes and forms, but for an organization offering end-to-end solutions like ours, it is fundamental to distinguish between the upstream and downstream services. By doing so we were able to address Andrew’s strategic problems, as well as deliver resulting multi-stream agile initiatives simultaneously.

Upstream services are essentially a type of consultancy engagement focusing on research, architecture, and strategy, including the activities mentioned in this article. Whether for internal teams or vendors, the number of consultants is relatively small, but crucial for the qualitative understanding and definition of the project, products, and essential outcomes. Moreover, it is the driver for the delivery work happening downstream.

Downstream services are operational services focusing on the more traditional design functions used in creating tangible outcomes, including, but not exclusive to, UX, UI design, prototyping, and front-end development. This is particularly the case in agile environments where designers are a part of the teams, allowing for effective cross-functional, iterative, and collaborative work. In addition to creating designs, designers are also responsible for quality assurance of the actual product design output and its experience.

Furthermore, the division between upstream and downstream services helps with team distribution and location costs. While collocation is always the best option, it is not always feasible and, for many companies with large operations, it is a pure luxury. The model presented here allows for collocation as well as distributed teams. Regardless of location, a close working relationship between consultants and clients is essential to project success. It is also helpful if the downstream executive services are aligned with engineers through a matrix management structure, thus guaranteeing cross-functional team alignment and product quality.

Distribution has its own challenges, of course. When it comes to design, the risk is maintaining the consistency of design quality standards, connecting cross-team practices, and providing the ability to learn from shared experiences. In order for the model to work, the two services must be part of a singular, overarching governance model and program, whether distributed or collocated. Only then can design services cohesively and effectively provide breadth, scale, and the necessary reach to solve the complexities of enterprise projects.