And this ease-of-use isn’t just experienced through our phones and laptops. We’ve seen UX innovations in automobiles, in health care, in home devices, in retail. From self-checkout and smart thermostats to voice recognition and wearables—it’s all part of UX now.

This is what we know. This is what we’ve come to expect. From all our interfaces.

Well, all except for one: enterprise software. As consumers, if our experience isn’t fast, simple and gratifying then we rebel, we delete, we seek out something newer and better—knowing it’ll be out there, confident someone has seen fit to fix the issue, to design something more functional and relevant. As consumers, we have this luxury.

But not as employees. As employees, we play the hand we’re dealt. And what we’re dealt is often a user experience that’s the opposite of what we’ve come to demand as a consumer. It’s clunky, it’s impenetrable, it’s overly complex. And it’s a real drag to stare at everyday—as if just because we use this software at the office, its usability, its design, its very color palette must denote drudgery.

First contact

It’s heartening to see progress being made. Compared to a just a few years ago, things have greatly improved. People are talking about enterprise UX more and more, trying to figure out the best way to attack it. And some aren’t wasting any time.

One example, of course, as usual, is Google. Cloud services like Drive give us flexibility, mobility, and an alternative to Office. Microsoft has also made progress with their OWA app, 365, and Office online. Then there are the other longtime enterprise software companies, like Infor and Salesforce, who have recently undertaken major UX upgrades. But it’s newer startups who are really leading the charge. Places like Asana, Box, Domo, and Honey are refining the enterprise, defining the new standard, and making millions of people’s workdays a whole lot more enjoyable.

This first wave of product innovation has already made an impact and helped give an indication of where we all may be headed before long. Yet it’s still frustrating out there for millions of employees, particularly those at larger companies. Many of these companies are balking at the cost of upgrading legacy systems, and very few are investing in something entirely new.

The enemy within

It's absolutely true that there’s a cost-benefit for companies to weigh. No doubt, a considerable investment of patience and capital is part of the deal. Even for companies who've become convinced they'll wind up on the sunny side of cost-benefit, the decision to pull the trigger can drag on and on and on.... Corporate culture, despite the addition of kegs and foosball tables to many a breakroom, remains fairly conservative when it comes to bold software decisions.

There’s also the fact that the people making these decisions usually aren’t the end users. This disconnect is certainly a factor in why the enterprise is so unattractive and user-unfriendly in the first place. It also has the tendency to spawn marathon training sessions and tedious security protocols.

Plus, enterprise software can’t be crafted for everyone. It’s job is to meet the needs of a very particular audience with very particular tasks and terminology, and specific skill sets that are unique to their industry, be it high-tech, healthcare or manufacturing. Even within these industries, each company requires its own fairly customized enterprise software with, no doubt, a pretty complex data model underneath it. And, of course, within each company there are any number of departments with very different everyday tasks to get done.

Oh, and don’t forget about the numbers, the sheer scale of it all. In some cases, we’re talking about machines by the hundred-thousand, performing hundreds of tasks, used by employees all over the world. (What could possibly go wrong?)

So sure, one can see why there’s some reticence on the part of companies to take a bold leap with their enterprise software. No doubt the challenges are real. But there are also very real benefits to enterprise boldness.

The way to Eden

Undoubtedly the biggest motivator to investing in a better enterprise UX is speed, and for good reason. Speed is important in a number of ways (including faster scalability, faster rollouts, faster adoption and straight up ease-of-use). Which means happier, less frustrated employees (which is no small thing). In fact, Gallup estimates that these actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. between $450 billion to $550 billion each year in lost productivity.

Bold enterprisers also gain mobility. Just think how much better customer service can be when employees have anywhere/anytime access to the data they need.  

Data might just be one of the most compelling carrots to enterprise improvement. Companies have been spending a decade or more harvesting heaps of big data only to find themselves either unable to retrieve it in a timely manner, or unable to make full use of it in the way their enterprise software presents it to them—a way that so often leads not to identifying opportunities for process improvements or to insights about customer trends but to analysis paralysis, frustration, and the can being kicked down the road. What companies need is faster access to critical information and business intelligence presented in more useful and powerful ways. There’s a wave of up-and-coming companies, such as Tableau and Good Data, that are working to provide solutions to these challenges. And as they keep pushing forward, no doubt we’ll see even better flexibility and customization.

And then there’s the bottom line. A smoother, simpler, faster UX will lead to an increase in efficiency and access to critical information while at the same time decreasing training costs. (Hooray, no more all-day seminars on How To File An Expense Report!). And the increase in productivity, depending on the industry, could result in a savings of millions-per-year, even in a smaller company. Add to all that the less quantifiable but no less tangible gain of increased loyalty—from customers and employees alike.

The hard truth is that if companies don’t step up, employees—particularly younger ones—are going to find workarounds to make their lives easier. This can be an IT department’s worst nightmare: security, sharing policies, compliance, data leakage. But that’s the thing about a world full of empowered users: they won’t stand idly by, fuming and thumb-twiddling. They’re going to find a better way, whether it’s good for the enterprise or not.

The new frontier

We ask a lot of these enterprise systems, and the larger they are, the more tricky things get. It’s hard trying to be the Swiss Army knife for a whole company, or for a single complex task that spans an entire industry (like, say, supply chain management). If enterprise software is being built to cover this much ground, it makes it much harder to design it with anything resembling sleek UX. It’s not a surprise that the most innovative enterprise software appearing now is more task-oriented and singular in scope.

The fact is—and this is especially true at larger companies—a laser-focused tool that can improve one small step in a process can be invaluable, expanding its impact exponentially as the process moves upstream. A single incremental improvement can drive benefits to performance, to employees (making their job less frustrating and more enjoyable), and to the bottom line. Little fixes matter a great deal.

In a way, this is what's happening with enterprise software itself: small but extremely significant incremental improvements—especially in the area of UX—with effects that are already being felt across many industries. The ignition has been lit.

No doubt there are some real challenges ahead. But the proof that these challenges can be overcome—and even that they can, in themselves, drive innovation—is in the new UX-focused enterprise software that’s been appearing over the last few years. Look at the subtle sophistication of Fog Creek’s Trello, or the deceiving simplicity and clever personality of Zendesk. These are the kinds of experiences that give one the crazy notion that the enterprise can not only function better, it can be charming, it can be elegant—it can, just maybe, even be beautiful.

What was once considered an unsexy, creativity-killing, bang-your-head-against-the-wall job is now being embraced by a new cadre of software designers who see not only opportunity but the chance to inspire fellow designers and improve the everyday lives of people on a massive scale.

So here’s to them, and to the enterprise continuing its mission: to explore new UX possibilities, to seek out efficiency and aesthetically pleasing fonts, to boldly go where no purpose-designed software has gone before.

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