design exercise on a whiteboard
PHOTO: Alvaro Reyes

Buried deep in a pool of research, which held the voices of hundreds of digital leaders, this quote suddenly surfaced:

“The cognitive effort to process stats from our analytics tools and bridge that to meaningful action in the CMS is too high.”

That notion — that organizations are finding it alarmingly difficult to make their software work together — has the weight and potential to mark nothing short of a paradigm shift in how we think about interoperability across applications in the enterprise. Here’s the story of where we came from and where we need to go, to make it more rewarding, productive and even thrilling to get work done through software.

The Good News: Enterprise UX Used to Be Worse

Just a few years back, enterprise employees were looking at their smartphones, smiling. Then they looked back in horror and disbelief at their desktop screens with all of their enterprise applications flashing at them. The contrast in usability was appalling.

That was around 2014, when it dawned on everyone that it just wasn’t humane to have great UX in your private life and nauseating mazes of software to fight against at work. Jared Spool put it like this: “The opposite of usability is training.” Because training is what is necessary when your software isn’t self-explanatory.

Why should enterprise user experience be gruesome when personal computing and mobile had reached level Ultimate Awesome? It became clear not only was this new level of usability in the personal realm a great emotional experience, it also impacted output quality and changed the way we interacted.

That’s how the idea of Enterprise UX became a thing. Conferences, slide decks, blogs, articles and how-tos popped up all over the place.

Now fast forward to 2018. How far have we come?

Related Article: User Experience Debt Is Sapping Our Productivity

The Bad News: We’re Only Halfway There

Without a doubt, enterprise usability has in fact improved in many places. New startups have disrupted categories with superior user experiences, old-time vendors have stepped up — or are in the process of doing so — and new SaaS which do not have to deal with backwards compatibility and heavily customized applications could make great strides towards greater joy at work. The cry for better usability at the office was heard.

But here’s the problem and also the opportunity we now face: Quality enterprise user experience has typically only reached the single application. The user experience of trying to get value out of multiple connected applications still isn’t great. In fact, it is often downright terrible.

Everyone uses a plethora of software to do their jobs. Even if every single one of those individual pieces of software sports great UX, it still falls flat when they don’t come together in a meaningful way in front of the user. To put it simply: The next step for enterprise UX is cross-application usability.

Related Article: Poor User Experience Drains Productivity and Your Bottom Line

More Humble Software, Please

Cross-application usability goes way beyond merely sharing data between applications. It is about injecting analytics data in just the right places in the experience planner, about administering the correct dose of SEO suggestions in the content authoring interface. Or about receiving notifications from other applications that inform your work in the UI currently open. When third-party data reaches the user at the contextually optimal time, it has massive impact on experience quality.

More humble software will do us all good. Software that’s less arrogant about wanting to live on its own but which earnestly plays well with others. Passing data back and forth well is not enough. Integrations have to become visual and timely. Such a capability needs to be thought of as a feature when making purchasing decisions.

Sure, the big suites promise a seamless and effective user experience across the different applications in the stack. But after doing hundreds of interviews with digital leaders in the last couple of years, I have still not come across a single enterprise which exclusively used one suite of more-or-less-seamless workflows across applications. Everyone just fires up new tools all the time, integrated and not-so-integrated.

What does that all mean for, say, the digital marketer in an enterprise? It means when they have a goal to reach, they need to apply and interact with data from multiple applications — and it means they are forced to use their short-term memory and some serious, cognitive heavy-lifting as the API between disjointed tools.

The quote we started with about the cognitive effort to process stats in analytics and bridge it to meaningful action in the CMS is a prime example of that phenomenon.

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Meaningful – Not Technical – Integrations

All too often, integrations between tools in the exploding martech stack are largely of technical nature. You asked your dev teams to get the apps to talk to each other, data was exchanged efficiently, the applications were “integrated.” All should be fine and dandy, right? The problem is, no one is building the UX bridges between the individual applications.

When the user experience of integrated applications is lacking, then the enterprise marketer ends up having to mentally connect everything by sheer brain-power:

  • When is a signal in the analytics tool relevant for an ongoing campaign?
  • What piece of content in the content marketing platform does an engagement analytics notification relate to?
  • What should be changed in the CMS when the SEO tool is flashing hot red alerts?
  • How can the CRM’s segmentation model inform what type of content should be created?

All of those workflows traverse applications and require people to do the sense-making.

You could argue that the need for these brain-based APIs are exactly why you hire humans and not bots as digital marketers. But marketers are bound to be overwhelmed with the surge of digital possibilities. The tools they surround themselves with are soaked with options, with potential and with crises triggers and requests, with unpredictability and cause for confusion. No wonder it’s not working — and no wonder so much software is bought, yet never taken advantage of.

Think about how well iOS apps can talk to each other via the Share functionality. Or how meaningful Slack integrations are for the end user. That’s the level of interconnectivity still ahead of us when working with multiple enterprise applications.

At my company, we call this IUX, for interoperability user experience. It means integrations that purely work on the technical level — but which in the end do not make sense for the user — are not going to cut it. We’re openly obsessing over getting integrations and usability to come together.

A good first step towards improving this problem is to sit down and read up on the practice of service design and learn to apply it to the workflows across apps.

Digital Transformation Requires Service Design

If you merely buy software, set up training and focus on the technical integrations and data exchange between systems, you’re exposing a business risk. You risk bad ROI of expensive software investments — and you risk that time and effort will go down the drain when users are overwhelmed by how to extract value from all of the signals and options they get from their tools.

The practice of service design can teach us a lot about how to plan for better user experiences across software.

We need to treat cross-application usability for internal users with the same seriousness as we engage with planning customer journeys. If your folks behind the screens can’t piece together input and output across software, then not much digital transformation can really happen.

Saying you want to be data-driven is one thing. Operationalizing it is a whole different matter. Yet, that can be solved through designing the user experience between e.g. your engagement analytics, optimization software and experience management. It is a matter of directing design resources to the internal workflows with the aim to improve the customer experience in the end. Those who work in user experience and service design intimately know how to do that. They just need to be nudged in that direction.

Related Article: Why Design Today Hinges on Deleting Experiences and Reading Minds

Protecting Your Software Investments

If you asked a room full of digital leaders today to raise their hands if they were ready to  prioritize budget for cross-application usability, not many paws would go up. My claim is this will change in the next couple of years — and it is already underway.

Budgeting a better user experience across software is often a tough sell internally. Yet a project to improve the connections between applications is usually far cheaper and much more valuable than yet another shift of tools.

The business side of better integrations is essentially about protecting the software investments a company makes. If users have trouble taking advantage of programs supposed to work in conjunction, then that is a very real business problem.

Give Up Siloed Software For Good

Onwards, only a very few people around you, if anyone, will understand the full breadth of software and services required to run your digital organization. That makes accessing software — that both connects services and does so in a manageable fashion — an absolutely critical necessity.

Companies should get creative about how they get their tools to work in conjunction. It has serious value to e.g. show the brief from your content marketing platform directly in the experience management user interfaces, reminding the user of what the big picture is at the crucial time when they put together the experience.

Consider yourself challenged to give up siloed software for good and become a believer in seriously connected tools.