Insights

The Growing Importance of UX in Enterprise Software

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By Sebastian Ferrari

User Experience Designer

For the longest time, the user experience (UX) of enterprise software was woefully neglected. Fortunately, UX is increasingly being seen as a crucial part of enterprise software development. So, what has changed? Read on for a brief history of enterprise software (I promise to keep it short!) and a discussion of three areas where UX is playing a greater role in making enterprise software successful.

A short history of enterprise software

First, a definition: enterprise software is any software that is used to run a business or that primarily supports businesses and their employees. This could be anything from a multimillion dollar Enterprise Resource Planning system to a messaging tool that helps staff communicate.

An important distinction from consumer software is that typically, the buyer of enterprise software and the user of enterprise software are not the same person. An enterprise software buyer is usually the IT department in collaboration with management. The users or employees have little to no input into the decision. As a result, enterprise software in the past was built around the needs of the buyer more so than the user, leading to poor user experiences.

Two major things have changed in the past decade.

First, with the advent of the smartphone and the rise of social networking in the 2000s, apps have become much more common in everyone’s lives. In the 80s and 90s most apps centered around work tasks like email and word processing. Today, people use apps for any number of activities. These apps retain or lose users based on delivering an excellent user experience, setting a higher bar for the software people use at work (a phenomenon known as the “consumerization of IT”).

The second major change was the advent of cloud computing and web-based apps and how they have lowered the switching-costs for businesses. With apps that can be run in a browser and that don’t need an “on-premise” installation, enterprise software companies can no longer simply depend on vendor lock-in to retain their existing clients. Instead, they have to compete on providing value to their clients, which includes improving the user experience.

In sum, employees bring higher expectations to the tools they use at work, and there are lower costs for businesses to switch to new software solutions. Sometimes this means that employees will adopt and use better-designed software tools in the workplace, even without prior approval from IT. Even when employees have no direct say (such as with an ERP), there is simply less tolerance in general for poorly designed software in the workplace.

With that history out of the way, let’s get to three areas where UX’s greater role is helping make enterprise software better and making enterprise software companies more successful.

#1: Acquiring new customers

It used to be that if you were interested in a piece of enterprise software, you first had to submit a form to “Request a Demo”.

Example of a form to request a demo

This is partly because the software likely did not run in a web browser but rather required an installation, and because the sales force was seen to be the tip of the spear in terms of acquiring new customers. But distribution over the internet means products now have a direct line to potential users, who are more empowered to sway the decisions of the IT department.

Compare the experience above, where you have to a) fill out a form b) wait until someone contacts you, and c) schedule a demo with them, to the experience below from the homepage for Slack, a messaging app for teams.

Slack has a one-field sign-up form directly on its homepage.

Type in your email address, get a verification email in your inbox, and you’re already setting up a Slack team, with no credit card needed.

The demise of the demo represents a shift in digital strategy for enterprise software companies. UX professionals can help execute on this shift since they have been working on increasing conversion rates on business-to-consumer websites for the past two decades.

#2: Creating and maintaining a design system

A design system is a library of consistent user interface elements, page templates and icons. Salesforce, SAP, IBM, Oracle and Intuit, among other companies, have all developed design systems or style guides that bring coherence to their respective platforms and the apps that run on them. The benefit for users is that a design system helps to set expectations and bring a sense of familiarity to apps across the platform.

A button group from Salesforce’s Lightning Design System.

Even smaller companies and startups can benefit from a design system, as it will lay the groundwork for future growth and potentially accelerate that growth if designers can leverage pre-existing frameworks and interactions as they build out new features and apps. The creation and maintenance of design systems is where UX designers and researchers can bring a lot of value to companies large and small.

#3: Enterprise software on mobile

More and more work is being done on mobile devices. Even if an employee is sitting in front of a desktop computer all day, they might very well be on their phone doing work for a good portion of that time. There are both newcomers (Asana, Box) and oldtimers (SAP, IBM) that have recognized this and built experiences that are equally good on mobile devices as they are on non-mobile devices.

Asana is a shared task management tool for teams.


Advisor Alerts is an IBM app built on iOS for financial advisors.

Not every work context needs a mobile app, of course, and the desktop experience will always be important in the enterprise. But the more types of devices are out there, the more UX is needed to design experiences that align with both the context of the work being done and the device being used.

How The Nerdery can help

As enterprise users have become more empowered and as consumer software sets a higher and higher bar for excellence, the role of UX has become more central to the development of enterprise software.

Whether you are a startup or a large enterprise software company, The Nerdery can help. We have strategists who can help you set your strategic vision in the enterprise software market. We have over 40 designers, researchers and content strategists who can help you design experiences that enterprise users will be clamoring for rather than begrudgingly using. And we have hundreds of developers and quality assurance engineers who collaborate tightly with UX in order to achieve that strategic vision.

Published on 04.26.17