Held Hostage: the Forgotten Users of Software for Business

I had to write down step-by-step instructions so I could remember what to do.
Usage was incredibly frustrating. The dark green with black text is impossible to read at a glance, and the contrast with the bright yellow is really harsh if you’re trying to find something. You can resize the columns and sort by the columns, but resizing and sorting needs to be done every time you come back to the screen. So the filter option is the only realistic option.

Meet Valerie and Michelle – two individuals I happen to know.

I reached out to them on Facebook. They don’t describe their experience with Facebook in the same way.

The thing is, they’re still Valerie and Michelle whether they’re using software for work or for pleasure.

Business software: we have no choice but to use it.

Most business software is badly designed. From custom software that’s home-brewed by engineers and business analysts working in big companies to design software like Photoshop, users of these products face steep learning curves. These steep learning curves are a harbinger of opportunities for improvement, if not downright disruption.

It’s easy to find companies that peddle consumer-grade software caring about design. The resulting usability of well-designed products reap measurable dividends. A key reason these products succeed is the focus on the user. Before “user experience” was all the rage, “user-centred design” was the big awakening. In all the excitement, business-grade software – and the humans who are forced to use that software – were left behind and forgotten.

It’s hard to find designers with the appetite and aptitude to design business software. Paul Adams’ pithy coinage of the phrase “the dribblization of design” reflects the persistence of design being perceived as visual or graphic design. It’s a mental model that plagues designers and non-designers alike.

I’m certainly not the first or the only one to have raised this point.

Dylan Willbanks recently noted, “…when you talk to the leadership of these enterprise companies, they want a consumer-grade experience built into their SaaS-based billion dollar applications. So they bring in consumer-grade user experience designers, raised on user-centered design, taught that “innovation” is supreme. Bolstered by a “make it pretty” attitude in the executives, they set to work trying not for Olive Garden but more Eleven Madison Park — locally foraged! Haute cuisine! Sous vide! And their resulting designs end up emphasizing the wrong things. Icons get prettier. Cool new animations in a cool new iOS version of the application. The aesthetics are greatly improved. But the underlying functionality is still a mess, performance is still slow, and even as they’re defending their slick new mobile app[,] there’s a nagging doubt whether someone really does want to review complex spreadsheets on their phone. The drive is on presentation, but experience driven design goes by the wayside.”

Tom Hobbs, back in 2015, issued a ‘call to arms’ for improving the design of enterprise software. And earlier this year, Facebook’s Margaret Stewart was at O’Reilly’s Design Conference trying to rouse the troops to take up the cause of designing for business users. And yet others, such as Uday Gajendar, have felt the need to be apologists for heeding the call.

Business users are people, too!

I’d like to add my voice to the ‘call to arms’ by making the case from the perspective of the users.

The design community has made great strides in improving the experiences for many people when they use software for pleasure. We can do the same by remembering that these same people also need to use software for work. In fact, they’re the same people for whom we designed Pinterest, Uber, and all the other digital darlings du jour.

What if the software they use for work sucked a little less?

So, what’s the field of play? What’s software for business? Most people define it as software built by companies for use internally by employees. I would also include software designed, built, and sold by companies to their customers, as well as software designed and built by companies for use by their customers. Most of this stuff is terrible; some of it is really terrible. And the kicker is that lots of time and money was involved in producing this terrible stuff to be inflicted on hapless people who have to use this software every mind-numbing, rage-inspiring day.

We can do better. We should do better.

How can business software be more human-optimized?

Back to first principles. Our designer’s toolkit is still valid, though some of those tools may need a bit of imagination and creativity to be adapted to handle the more complex data models and mental models of the business landscape:

  • Develop empathy for the people who have to use it
    • users of business software are humans, too
    • go beyond tasks to understand the real reason they’re using the software
    • understand the workarounds they’re coming up with to get through their day and still catch their commuter train home despite the bad UX of the software they need to work with
    • creating taxonomy, IA, and mental models that are understandable by users rather than the engineering vocabulary used to describe the system;
  • Design for the network
    • no enterprise software exists in isolation: it’s always connected to something upstream, something downstream, and often something adjacent
    • work flows in a single application typically traverse multiple systems, some of which aren’t even digital;
  • Consider AI augmentation
    • consider the possibility of designing parts of the system to offload work that scripts and bots can do in order to free up humans to do the work that only humans can do.

Business software is the next frontier of UX design, rich with opportunities and relatively free of competition for right-minded designers to make our mark.


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