While the workforce is increasingly occupied with knowledge work, it is not seen nearly as business critical as production or service delivery. For this reason, many knowledge workers have had to put up with poorly designed enterprise digital services. Executives and decision-makers must learn that “good enough” is just not good enough when it comes to designing digital services for enterprise use.
In 1977, when I was just 5 years old, my father founded a company that started selling personal computers in Sweden. During the years ahead, I got the opportunity to try out and use a lot of different PCs, from the Commodore PET and the ABC 80 (from the Swedish company Luxor) to the IBM PC. Yet it wasn't until 1984, when I laid my hands on a Mac for the first time, that I got really hooked on computers.
I had never been interested in programming, and with the Mac I quickly found out that I could do amazing things with the only two programs I had: MacPaint and MacWrite. I came to realize that I could use a computer for things I already loved to do: drawing and writing. It was the first time a computer became useful to me, and using the Mac was an uplifting experience, unlike anything I had experienced before. It was completely intuitive and I started playing around immediately, needing no instructions. The difference between the IBM PC and the Apple Mac was like night and day.
I have only had a similar kind of experience once again since then, and it was when I switched from a Samsung smartphone with Windows 6 mobile to iPhone 3G in 2008. Everything that I used to do with my Samsung was just so much easier to do with the iPhone. I came to realize how I had struggled to do even simple things such as texting or emailing before. I immediately knew that turning back was not an option.
These two products, the Mac and the iPhone, have not only had a profound impact on my own use of computers and smartphones, but indisputable they have also had a profound impact on the entire computer and mobile phone industries. In fact, these two industries are now converging as a result of the iPhone. The Mac turned computers into something that people, who weren't programmers or accountants, found usable and really enjoyed using. The iPhone turned smartphones into something that the not so tech-savvy users could use and feel smart using.
It’s All about Simplicity
Steve Jobs and the folks at Apple have known all along what so many in the IT industry still do not know, or at least do not act upon if they know it: that a great user experience is the silver bullet to getting people to want to use computers and that the core of a great user experience is simplicity. A simple product is one that inhabits fitness, which is suited for its purpose; it has all the properties that are needed for its specific purpose -- no more, no less. Simplicity is not just a matter of reduction, but rather about achievement of maximum effect with minimum means. It is about unifying and making something meaningful out of separate pieces.
As anyone can understand, simplicity requires serious thought and effort. Apple knows this, and Steve Jobs made them recall this when he returned to Apple in 1997. Once again they started to put their focus and dedication on making their products as simple as possible, knowing that simplicity itself is a differentiator. Not features, not technical specifications, but simplicity.
Enterprise Apps & the User Experience
It was my experiences from using my first Mac that got me interested in how to use computers for creative tasks, an interest that I later turned into a career. Today, I spend my days trying to make organizations understand the importance of usability and user experience when designing services and the digital work environment for knowledge workers. Although I use different terms to describe what I do, such as Enterprise 2.0 and Social Business, what I essentially do is to find ways for us to work smarter together by making the digital services we use to get our work done more usable, uplifting and intuitive to use. Simplicity is the overarching principle we need to follow to achieve this.
When discussing the user experience of typical enterprise applications with some of my colleagues the other week, one of them, a skilled interaction designer, said, "At the very least, make it not annoying." Her words stuck with me because they were funny and true at the same time. That's the absolute minimum -- make it not annoying. Then we can bear with it and use it, living on the hope that it will eventually be improved.
Yet if we are to use an application regularly and spontaneously, creating a habit to use it, it must be designed in a way that makes us WANT to use it. It needs to exceed our expectations and surprise us with a great experience, and it should never stop improving. That is why executives and decision-makers need to understand that "good enough" is just not good enough when it comes to designing digital services for enterprise use. Just as we have come to expect great user experiences as consumers, we now expect much better user experiences at work.
Unfortunately, organizations have been able to force badly designed enterprise applications on people for a long time. When it is someone’s job to enter data into an ERP system, they have no other choice than to use the ERP system to get their job done, crappy user interface or not. If they don't do it, they will get fired. If they don't do it, operations will stop and revenue streams will as well.
The Organization's Perception of Knowledge Work
Much of the knowledge work carried out today in organizations is of a different character. There’s usually not a prescribed way of doing it since what knowledge workers need to do and how differs from time to time. They often have many different tools to do what they are supposed to do, and they are open-ended when it comes to how they can use them.
The interesting part is that although an increasing part of the workforce is occupied with knowledge work, ranging from creating sales messages and product designs to solving problems and gathering intelligence about customer needs, knowledge work is still not considered even nearly as business critical as production or service delivery. When you pull the power plug to the factory, the production stops. No more goods are produced and can be sold to customers.
The consequences aren’t as visible when someone who is involved in an R&D project fails to share a piece of information that would make another R&D project aware of the fact that they are doing the same things and would benefit from coordinating their projects. Nor are the consequences visible when a person working with customer service receives a great idea from a customer about how to improve a product but doesn’t have the time (or rather incentives), tools or knowledge to make it reach a product owner.
Operations won't come to a halt, even if the consequences of not sharing will eventually turn out to be disastrous. That's why organizations that spend millions of dollars on implementing an ERP system, including a lot of change management, only spend a few hundred thousands of dollars on providing digital services and change management to establishing practices that enable knowledge workers to, easily and willingly, share information, knowledge and ideas with each other.
Simplicity in Communication & Collaboration
I am utterly convinced that improving communication and collaboration is fundamental in making organizations more responsive, agile, productive and innovative. The overarching principle to make this happen is simplicity, whether it is about designing organizations, business processes or digital services. I believe Apple knows and practices this, from the inside-out. If Steve Jobs’ legacy to the world could be summarized in one word, it would be simplicity.
Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading:
- Enterprise CMS and the Internal Customer Experience
- Forrester: Technology Trends for the Enterprise Architect to Watch
- Knowledge Communities: Unlocking SharePoint 2010's Hidden Value