Tuesday, 7 August 2012
Has the Usability Revolution Left Enterprise Software Behind?
Like the rest of the industry, many Enterprise Software
companies invested in product management and
design teams over a decade ago. While most other
applications have evolved to be more user-centric,
Enterprise Software — including Enterprise Resource
Planning (ERP), supply chain management, and
specialized Information Management software in fields
like Accounting, HR, and Legal — have mainly stayed
rooted in the design principles and esthetics the rest
of us left behind.
SO WHY DO INTELLIGENT, EXPERIENCED, and educated designers
and product managers produce software that frustrates their user base?
This is an important question, especially as the focus in Enterprise Software
shifts from features to usability, and the routine of the Enterprise user
evolves from ‘in the o!ce, 9-5’ to ‘anywhere, anytime.’ Vendors must adapt
the User Experience of their products to deliver value in new user contexts.
The "rst part of this paper investigates the six major roadblocks Enterprise
Software product teams face when making signi"cant updates in terms
of feature set, design, and usability. In the second part, we look at the "ve
major trends hitting the Enterprise Software market, from mobile and SaaS
platforms to context-aware functionality. We conclude by outlining how
product managers can overcome the issues that hold their teams back, so
they can capitalize on new opportunities.4 5
Why Are Enterprise
Hard to Use?
TO GET SOME ANSWERS, I started this conversation with three di#erent groups
in my social network: product managers, designers, and ERP professionals.
Many of these people actually work for ERP and Enterprise Software organizations. Their feedback identi"ed six major roadblocks Enterprise Software teams
face when making signi"cant updates to their software.
Enterprise Buyers Aren’t Users
With ERP, the people who buy the software often aren’t the people who use it.
This divorces users from decision-makers, so often usability doesn’t play into
the buying decision. Senior management’s criteria might include features, cost,
and the relationship with the vendor. The only thing on that list that the user
cares about is features, but what good are features a user can’t "nd, understand, or actually use?
Some market leaders like SAP have been recognized as making strides
towards improving usability in recent years, with usability complaints
sometimes making it all the way to the executive level. But for a signi"cant
majority, there’s been no cost justi"cation for simplifying the solution. The
customers who’ve been with the solution since version 4.0 will upgrade from
6.5 to 7 because they don’t want to start again with another application, and
the learning curve, customization, and deployment that comes with it. Even
when usability feedback trickles up to senior management, it’s often dismissed
as typical complaints or addressed via expensive training because they’re
already invested in the application.
ERP solution providers should beware of this type of thinking. As we’ll
discuss later, market reports show that next-generation management is more
software-savvy than their predecessors. They understand that total cost of
ownership doesn’t end at install. Niche players with fantastic design have the
opportunity to stroll into large organizations and bite o# pieces of the ‘big
guy’s’ market.6 7
Too Many User Groups, Too Many Features
One of the people I spoke with said some ERP systems reminded him of the
guy in the o!ce who tries to please everybody. He runs around trying to
accomplish every request, leaving a trail of apologies in his wake.
Information Management Systems and ERP applications in particular, often
try to be all things to all people instead of focusing on a speci"c set of primary
users and a select number of usage scenarios. The result is the Microsoft Word
phenomenon, feature-heavy applications where 90% of the users utilize 10%
of the features — multiplied several times over.
Designing Solutions In Order To
Be Customizable From The Outset Is
A Huge Challenge
Traditionally, Enterprise Software companies, particularly ERP vendors, have
designed their products to be as customizable as possible — making them as
generic as possible, and inherently less usable than software designed around
a speci"c target user group.
When you can con"gure everything, the level of abstraction becomes very
high. From a technical standpoint, Enterprise Systems are basically platforms
on which to build solutions. The interface is based on patterns in the data,
regardless of what the data represents. For example, in the data, a ‘customer’
entity cannot be distinguished from any other entity. The result is generic edit
screens, generic $ows, and generic interactions that are often far removed
from a billing specialist, lawyer, or accountant’s actual context of use.
Arguably, the greatest opportunity for improving usability, user adoption, and
customer satisfaction lies in addressing this issue. More and more, vendors are
including User Experience professionals in the customization and implementation process, but this is limited to the constraints of the generic software you’re
customizing. As we’ll see in the next section, one of the main trends forecasted
by analysts is the rise of domain-speci"c systems. Software designed from the
ground up speci"cally for accountants, physicians, billing specialists... Basically,
for every niche market.
If Enterprise Solutions look like something out of the 1990s, it’s often because
that’s exactly what they are. These applications started as programs designed
by software developers, not UI designers, and focused on the power of computing, not the end user’s needs. It’s not a software developer’s job to investigate the environment, constraints, and psychology of the people on the other
side of the mouse. The programmers did their jobs and did them well, creating
the features that give Enterprise Software the power it has today — but that
doesn’t mean the design of the application holds up to today’s standards, not
to mention the environmental changes that have happened in computing
since Enterprise Software came on the scene.
GUI layers are often deeply embedded in the product, and process $ows are
hard-coded. This results in spaghetti code, the legacy of developers who have
long since moved on. Restructuring that code is no small task.
Old technology isn’t the only architecture issue. Acquisition can also play
a part. Many companies end up buying their competitors and rolling the
features of the competing product into their own. The thought process is that
this makes their o#ering more robust and keeps the acquired users happy.
Unfortunately, the loser is usability. Combining di#erent architectures and
technologies might result in a richer product, but it leaves the underlying code
a goopy mess of ‘checkbook engineering.’
The Risk Of Alienating The Established
Having an established customer base pays the bills, but it discourages change
like nothing else. Any improvement you make is likely to a#ect someone who
pays for your current product. Long time users become so engrossed in the
processes they know that they feel any change disrupts their way of doing
business. They’re likely to be irritated, and very vocal about things they feel
a#ect their bottom line, even if it bene"ts them in the long term.
There are proven techniques for updating, and even overhauling, a major
portion of an existing software system, but many organizations still view this
as a risk and put it o# as long as possible.
Enterprise Software has traditionally been sold by features, so ERP, BI, and
other Information Management companies have generally allotted the majority of resources to the development checklist, and ignored design.
The unfortunate side e#ect is that companies increase investment in feature
development and focus less on ease of use. The result is Product Management
and User Experience teams that are chronically understa#ed, under-funded,
and siloed from the development process. 8 9
ONE THING I NOTICED IN THE DISCUSSION ON ERP and the usability revolution
was this: almost everyone who took part commented that the tide is turning.
With companies like SalesForce.com, Apple, and Facebook setting the design
and usability bar high, the pressure is now on Enterprise and ERP companies to
overcome these roadblocks and drive signi"cant change in their products.
In this section, we forecast "ve major trends in the market that will have a
powerful impact on how managers need to evolve their product lines in order
to stay competitive. These trends are based on our own experience, as well as
from input from market analysts like Gartner and Forrester.
New Solutions Driven By The
Demand for SaaS
A recent EbizQ article projects the SaaS market will balloon to $21.3 billion in
revenue through 2015.
“Corporations,” they say, “are increasingly less concerned with issues such as
security, availability, and performance — once viewed as signi"cant stumbling
blocks to the growth of SaaS. The growth of industry giant Salesforce.com is a
testament to this — the multi-billion dollar corporation holds some of the
most critical data a company can have: their customer and prospect data.”
Now the race is on for vendors to design and build SaaS versions of their
$agship products. Creating a new product means an opportunity to capture
new audiences by renewing both design and work$ow, while keeping the
solution comfortingly familiar for current users. The key to success will be
balancing the two.
On top of that challenge, you’ll need a team that knows modern web
technology stacks from the inside out in order to get the product released
quickly and e!ciently…before your competition does.
The Tide is Turning
On this topic, we recommend our paper How To Get Amazing Software Out
The Door Fast, a collection of modern product management, UI design, and
software development techniques that form the basis of any major software
creation (or re-creation) project.
One of 2012’s biggest buzzwords is analytics, ranked as Gartner’s #2 trend in
this year’s Top 10. “The volume of information within enterprises continues
to grow at an astonishing rate,” say Ovum software market analysts, “and
investment is needed to both manage this information and turn it into
actionable intelligence, through technologies such as business intelligence
and analytics.” [Link.]
But analytics can either be the boost your business needs to bring its A game,
or a disappointing waste of time and resources. If you’re looking to analytics
to turn an Information Management System into an intelligent Information
Management System, you’ll face two challenges:
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and organize vast masses of data so that only the most relevant, most useful
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want to see? How can you present them in the interface so that the user
immediately "nds what they need to know, and can apply it in a way that
adds value to their bottom line?
Collecting data for data’s sake and creating analytics for analytics’ sake is just
throwing away time and money. Only when you understand the user’s core
needs, and have the technology to extract the most useful data, can you give
your users what they want, when they want it, and in the right format.
Analysts have been discussing context-awareness since the mobile market
exploded in late 2010, but now it’s starting to, and will continue to be, a real
force in the industry.
True context-awareness centers on the User Experience. Designers of contextaware features need to take into account:
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Context-awareness isn’t only about understanding how the application
should behave based on the user’s context. It’s about leveraging the data and
analytics that we discussed earlier by integrating other technologies in the
ecosystem, from social networks to presence and collaboration tools.
Again, SalesForce.com is recognized as leading the charge with their introduc-
NOW THAT WE’VE LOOKED AT ROADBLOCKS and upcoming trends, we have
three recommendations that product managers can act on immediately.
Define Your Evolution Path Based on
Rigorous User Research
Do you know what speciﬁc aspects of your user interface would yield the
highest Return on Investment if you updated them?
Often it’s the usability and ﬂow of screens like dashboards and main pages that
users interact with on a daily basis to accomplish their primary tasks. Or the
issue could lie in the overall “Wow Factor” of the application that will attract
The only sureﬁre way to discover this information is to conduct the appropriate
user research, such as a series of usability tests, contextual interviews, or
ethnographic studies. Proven research should guide the evolution path, not
just internal stakeholders, user forums, or large-scale surveys.
Who Are the Primary Personas for the Evolution
of the Product?
As we discussed, Enterprise Software systems are often large and complex
because they serve too many types of users — sometimes 20-30 di#erent
groups — without prioritization.
As a "rst step, we recommend clearly de"ning User Personas, and then using
this information to select the main targets to guide the product line. Don’t
forget the mobile and SaaS versions.
As Steve Johnson points out in “Buyer and User Personas”, you will often "nd
Three Steps Every
Product Manager Can
Take Right Now
tion of new social and collaboration features. In the Healthcare space, Elsevier
has been spearheading new initiatives in Clinical Decision Support, developing
software that advises a physician on the best course of action given a patient’s
context — information like symptoms, allergies and medications.
This is only the beginning. As context-awareness grows, instead of users being
smarter about software, software will be smarter about its users.
Vertically Focused Software
One of Gartner’s 5 Trends for Enterprise Software predicts, “Vendors who are
providing general technologies will move towards specialized software as the
number of deployments they do in particular verticals rises.” [Link.]
This is particularly obvious in the Healthcare and Finance verticals, but will
spread to every domain, from Legal to Retail to Manufacturing.
For example, look at Enterprise communications vendors Avaya, Cisco, and
Sprint Nextel. All have traditionally marketed their general purpose solutions
to the Healthcare market, and recently, every one of them has released
As this trend continues, it’s critical to have a product manager at the helm
of every major market to outline the speci"c requirements each domain
or vertical demands. The team is just as important. Team members, from
designers to software developers, have to know their domain, from the
usability standards mandated in some industries, to engineering speci"cs like
data exchange protocols in others.
Everyone has seen SAP hype its new mobile solutions, but many lower-pro"le
organizations have put Enterprise solutions on tablets with varying degrees of
Some of the worst mobile products are straight-up ports from desktop or
Enterprise programs. Mobile users might be more hurried, have trouble
switching cognitive context, or just be unable to use features the same way
they would with a mouse and keyboard. Many features may need to be
dropped, simpli"ed, or adapted for users on the go.
Understanding the user needs and context for a mobile product, designing
for the constraints of mobile devices, and building on the right technology
platform (HTML5? Native? Hybrid?), are not decisions you should take lightly.
You need the right mix of design and development skills to successfully carry
out the promise of mobile for your users.
We recently covered this topic in some depth in our webinar Porting Complex
Software to Mobile Platforms. Check out the recording.
that some features have been designed for Buyer Personas — procurement
managers, CIOs, and so forth who do not actually use the software once it is
purchased. While it’s important for product managers, sales, and marketing
to be aware of these personas, a product line’s evolution should focus on the
people actually using the system.
Make Part of Your Research Observation-Based
Talking to end users is necessary to glean true customer insight, but it’s not
enough by itself. You need to put the ideas you get from talking to customers
into a wider context. You do this using data from other research techniques,
particularly observational research — watching users use the product in their
real-world environment and understanding their unspoken needs.
For example, when we do a "eld study or task analysis, we often discover
work$ow issues with the product that cause frustration and wasted time. Even
though the customer hasn’t identi"ed these issues in the interview, they often
present a greater opportunity for product improvement than the customer’s
“wish list” of features.
Often, what users say they want and what they actually need are very di#erent.
Proven user observation techniques are the key to discovering the latter. See
more in our paper on Product Management Research Pitfalls.
Don’t Reinvent the Design Wheel
Current industry leaders have shared many standard design and interaction
patterns. While this is no substitute for User Experience professionals and
won’t help you innovate beyond the competition, they are a fundamental
SAP, for example, shares their knowledge of User Experience problem/solution patterns they encounter in ERP. Oracle and Endeca have partnered to
build a large set of UI design patterns for BI and Analytics systems.
Consider What Will Happen if You Don’t Change
You should consider the risks of evolving your product, but you also need to
factor the risks of not doing it into the equation. Staying with the status quo
might look like the safe option, but if you want to grow your user base when
potential customers increasingly expect good design, not updating might be
the bigger gamble.
Don’t guess at good design or leave product management to chance. For more
info, check out Overhaul a UI Design without Upsetting Users.
Get A Technical Analysis To Determine
As we talked about earlier, one of the biggest constraints product teams face
is the existing code base and software architecture. The code base is often a
tangled mess of legacy “spaghetti” code, silos (separate tables that can only be
retrieved independently), and most recently stateless protocols that are not
aware of what is happening in di#erent parts of the screen.
All of these architectural structures served a technical purpose over the evolution of the product, but all are now hampering the improvement of design and
The plan you put together to evolve this code base is critical. It will a#ect timelines and costs for feature or design updates, and migration to new platforms
such as SaaS and mobile.
Assess Your Ability to Develop an API
One of the "rst things your team should look at is the ability to put all the
system’s business logic into a separate code layer and wrap it with a clear API.
In a legacy system, the business logic is often the biggest opportunity for code
encapsulation and re-use because it contains rules and exceptions that have
evolved over the history of the product.
Once you have a well formed API, it can power new features, design changes,
and extensions of the product onto new platforms.
This is easier said than done. Frequently, the UI code is intertwined with the
business logic. Plus, if the code structure doesn’t use proper relational database design practices, data manipulation code may also be intertwined with
the business logic. And that’s assuming it’s a relational database in the "rst
If you have a Unit Test framework or automated test framework, this is where
the investment will pay o# as you evolve the code towards a more structured
format with an API.
Have a Plan
To put together a plan you can present to upper management, you can:
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keep them? This would give you a starting point.
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scenarios that will be most critical in the evolution of your software. It is
possible that some features will not be a priority, and the supporting code
could be dropped altogether, simplifying the code base and easing rearchitecture.
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now have a minimal feature set for the 1.0 release of your next generation
system. That scope will be easier to manage, and if you start with only
new customers, migration of legacy data will be less of a concern, so it will
be faster to get the "rst release ready. Then you can come up with data
migration tools later.
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technical roadblocks quickly.
Working in Parallel
The "rst generation of software planning processes were termed “Waterfall”
and were severely derided over the past decade for being heavy, time
consuming, and wasteful. The second generation took on various forms of
“Agile”, where many teams abandoned upfront planning and jumped right into
short sprints or iterations.
What we’re seeing now is the emergence of a third generation involving
just the right amount of upfront planning, followed by all team members —
product managers, analysts, designers and developers — working in parallel.
There are a couple of reasons functions can’t “take turns” sequentially
designing and building a product:
1. The steps are not sequential. Designers need to test that a design is
working over the course of development. Product Managers need to adapt
requirements as they get updated competitive data.
2. Designers need room to be creative, and that means the ability to fail and
3. Part of success is releasing in time to capitalize on a market opportunity.
Working in parallel with daily communication is much faster than working
For details on how teams can communicate e#ectively together and work in
parallel, see our paper How To Get Amazing Software Out The Door Fast.
and processed on screen. This may increase code complexity initially, but
planning this change deliberately will result in a more maintainable system
than hacking it progressively to satisfy individual design tweaks.
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Some parts of the code that retrieve, process and serve data may not need
to be optimized for the new user experience needs if they will be running
on an appliance with in-memory power.
The new system should be designed with most of the code being a common
API. This allows you to keep your Desktop, Web and mobile clients as thin as
possible, minimizing the investment per platform.
Get Your Product Managers, Designers, And
Developers Working Together As One Team
For any software organization serious about competing in the shifting Enterprise market, we believe the biggest key to success is getting the right design,
product management, and development competencies working together as
one team with a common goal — amazing software that doesn’t just aim to be
"rst-to-market, but best-to-market.
Poor software execution is often the result of structural and process-oriented
problems. How many times have you heard “The product manager presented a
great-looking product concept, but the "nal product just didn’t live up” or “Our
developers are really frustrated with the designers. Their designs are blue-sky
dreams. They just aren’t realistic.”
If you’ve got a major redesign or new product release in the making, these
struggles will cost your organization time, re-work, and missed opportunities.
Communication Accelerates Success
Software leaders like Apple, Facebook, and Google can a#ord to use hundredpage style guides and detailed design documents that dictate the interaction
and behavior of each control, the pixel-level spacing between every control on
the screen, and just about everything else. Most organizations don’t have the
time or budget to write such a detailed guide.
In our experience, the fastest, most cost-e#ective and most e!cient way to ensure the "nal design looks as great as what the product manager and designer
envisioned is to communicate as one team.
Daily, detailed communication can only happen when all stakeholders —
software architects, etc. — are included as part of the team.
Daily team communication ensures:
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need to spend days drafting diagrams to encapsulate every detail.16 17
IN THE END, when we look at the question of if the usability revolution left
Enterprise Software behind, the answer is that Enterprise might be a bit
behind, but the revolution is far from over.
Market analysts agree the demand for modern Enterprise Software is
snowballing, particularly on new platforms like tablets and in new contexts like
domain-speci"c software. Vendors who adapt fastest to the changing market
will gain ground over their competitors.
Moreover, Enterprise Software development companies will no longer be able
to sell their products solely on the back-end power of how they manipulate
data. Usability isn’t optional anymore. The people who buy their software will
increasingly recognize good design as a necessary feature that saves huge
amounts of money in training costs and lost productivity.
In the end, there are lots of explanations why the Enterprise Software
stereotype exists. None of them are reasons to keep things this way.
FOR QUESTIONS OR COMMENTS about this white paper, or for more
information on a consultation, please contact:
+ 1 877-779-6336 x136
MACADAMIAN IS A GLOBAL UI design and software innovation studio that
provides a complete range of highest quality usability, design, and software
engineering services to industry leaders across North America. Our experience,
and proven ability to work seamlessly with product management executives
and software teams is why companies turn to Macadamian to develop product
strategies, design compelling user experiences, and build quality software.
Whether you’re a small start-up or a corporate giant, we can help you
transform ideas into market-ready features or products that will stand out from
your competition and delight customers.
Additional information can be found at www.macadamian.com.