holding head in hand
Short-term thinking holds companies back from realizing the advantages good user experience provides for their bottom line PHOTO: Alexander Dummer

Organizations have a cost saving opportunity staring them right in the eye — but many are choosing to ignore it.

Improving the user experience (UX) of the software deployed across the enterprise offers benefits beyond those you may be aware of. 

Why Spend a Fortune on Software Users Hate?

Sure, we all appreciate the advantages of a user interface (UI) that helps people achieve their goals as easily as possible — we’ve been talking about user-centered design for decades. And most of us are aware customized user interfaces are no longer the expensive option they used to be, even for some out-of-the-box software products and software as a service. 

But more often than not, when considering a project to buy or build a software application, we look at our options and decide to minimize up front costs and effort —and the first casualty of this budgeting is often the user experience.

The error here, as usual, is short-term thinking. 

You will only recognize the value of rolling out an application your users love by seeing beyond the now. This doesn't require a crystal ball, just clear analysis of the current business processes and a little forward-thinking. It requires organizations to consider the costs over the lifetime of the software — and it's this longer term view which reveals the true value of an optimal UX. 

Too many organizations are spending a fortune (and wasting time and effort) on enterprise software their users hate.

The High Cost of a Cumbersome User Experience

The problems start as soon as you implement a new software application, during the adoption stage. Often, this is the first time many users will have anything to do with the new software. 

The acquisition and design of enterprise software is rarely made by the people who will use the system day-in, day-out. If the system has a steep learning curve and is slow and frustrating to use, adoption will be half-hearted or require coercion.

Businesses too often overlook or fail to consider employee satisfaction when it comes to introducing new tools. User experience architect, Jim Ross explains it thus:

“The experience employees have with their tools can greatly impact their job satisfaction. Employees today spend a large part of their time using technology, such as software and web applications, to accomplish their work. Those systems can either be easy to use, efficient, and helpful in performing tasks; or they can be difficult to learn, cumbersome, inefficient, and unhelpful in accomplishing tasks.”

Even the biggest organizations can make a mess of UX and waste millions in the process. In 2013, Avon Products Inc. gave up on a four year, $125 million software overhaul after a test of the system in Canada revealed that it was so burdensome and difficult to use that many salespeople quit the company.

It's an extreme example, but reflects the importance of getting UX right — and that means involving all key stakeholders and product users in the process to ensure the right end result.

Diminished Productivity

A poor UX diminishes a team's productivity every hour of every day. Too often we see organizations forced to change their business processes to match new software rather than the other way round. Even if a task takes a few minutes longer than it could to complete, across a large enterprise this can add up to thousands of hours of wasted time per year.

Tom Landauer observed in 1995, “Inadequate use of usability engineering methods in software development projects have been estimated to cost the US economy about $30 billion per year in lost productivity.” Think of that cost today.

Fruitless Training

Organizations spend large amounts of money training staff to use software applications. It's considered the norm because that's how it's been for a long time. 

This needs to change. I believe if users who understand the underlying business processes require training, the UX design has failed. 

Enterprise applications could learn a thing or two from consumer-facing websites, which often support user interactions that are every bit as complicated as those of business applications. How much training did you need to use your favorite social media site?

No Excuses for Poor UX

Recent advances in technology and architectural trends have presented a fantastic opportunity for product vendors and software consultancies to address these problems by providing the best of both worlds: the cost savings of ready-built software with the user experience benefits of custom UIs.

JavaScript front-ends, microservices and cloud services have taken the software development world by storm. Frameworks such as React, which enables you to break down the front end into multiple components, and REST service-oriented architectures offer the holy grail of software engineering: true reuse. 

We finally have a way for software vendors to offer bespoke front ends onto existing services, enabling them to provide an optimal user experience without the expense of a complete custom build.

When it comes to designing user experiences, more free or low-cost tools are available than ever before to guide UX design, such as Google Analytics, remote-user testing software and rapid prototyping tools.

No Secret to Great User Experience

There is no secret to designing a great user experience. You need people who know what they are doing, as you do on any software project. But mainly you just need to make sure the user experience is considered a priority and the process is well understood. 

For large task-oriented enterprise systems, designing a great user experience involves finding out exactly what the people using the system are trying to achieve and tailoring the front end to match. The process can be broadly summarized in three phases:

  1. Build what people need: Undertake user and stakeholder interviews, competitor research and contextual enquiry to help build a strong understanding of what the users of the system want to achieve and what the business objectives are.
  2. Create an intuitive interface: One that speaks your users' language. Feed your research into an iterative cycle of wireframing, prototyping and user testing, to hone the most optimal user interface.     
  3. Ongoing improvement: Use analytics, A/B testing and more user testing to identify any rough edges you can remove from the system.

Experience the Future

As microservice-based architectures become the norm, we are likely to see a blurring line between out-of-the-box products and custom-developed applications. We will also see more applications with multiple UIs, each designed to support specific business processes more effectively.

Already some vendors  are using technologies like React to provide bespoke user experiences for their pre-built solutions. As this trend grows, there will be two winners: the end-users, who finally get enterprise software they enjoy using, and the enterprise, which saves a fortune as a result.

Thanks to Ben Browning, one of Bright Interactive’s UX experts, for help with this article