There is a general rule of thumb that applies to the World of software: if an application is a consumer application then to be successful is must be well designed, easy to use and well thought through. If, however, an application is an enterprise application the user experience is not nearly as important as the feature list.

Having spent many years designing and developing enterprise applications I can tell you that there are many people who build enterprise applications that truly care about creating great user experiences, and there are many clients who list it as a requirement when purchasing their systems. So why is it that using so many enterprise applications is such a bad experience?

I would suggest that there are three primary reasons;

1. The people who buy the software are not the end users

The first problem lies with the buyers, and it may well be the biggest problem of all. I have never been in any sales meeting where a potential customer has brought along one of the people that will actually use the application to help evaluate it. Never. I’ve given plenty of demonstrations to and had plenty of feedback from managers, team leaders and senior executives, but never from someone whose day job will involve using the application. Managers need to learn that they are not the audience for the application. They need to understand that their opinion of the interface is not an evaluation of the user experience and they need to understand that the interface (however pretty it is) is not the user experience.

2. Software designed to do everything for everyone will not be very good at any one thing

The second problem lies with the software vendors. Many vendors will do two things to compete: add more features to their products and make their products infinitely configurable. Both are aimed at making the products appeal to the widest audience possible, but both strategies result in products that are either too confusing to use or don’t quite do what you need them too. Imagine a car that was designed to win a formula 1 race, fit a family of 5 in the back, go off road, be driven on water, be driven in cities and replace tractors on farms. It wouldn’t work right? Well software designed to do everything rarely does either. (A note to buyers: just because a feature is listed as present in an application does not mean that it will work how you expect it to, or how your organisation needs it to.)

3. It is really hard to define a great user experience, or prove that a system offers one

The final problem is that it’s almost impossible to define what makes a great user experience. What works for one person will not for the next. In most sales situations that I’ve seen there is a technical buyer, a business buyer and someone with the authority to spend money. For the technical buyer benchmarking the system is easy; they ask about infrastructure, redundancy, back up routines, disaster recovery and service up-time history. For the business buyer the questions revolve around feature lists; “does it do this, that or the other?” “Can we use it to do these 4 key things?” “What reports will the system generate?” For the money folk the questions are about pricing, return on investment, service levels and contract length. All of these questions can be easily answered with fact based, well evidenced answers.

Ask if the system offers a good user experience and how would someone prove that it does? How would a buyer benchmark it against competitors? It’s easier just to ignore the question and focus on evaluating the more tangible aspects of the product. No vendor is ever going to claim that their product offers a bad user experience are they?

How can we combat these problems?

So how can we deal with these problems and start forcing enterprise application designers to build better user experiences?

Buyers: Test, test, test and then test again

Organisations looking to buy enterprise software need to start testing applications as they will be used in their organisation and they need to be conducting this testing with the actual people that will be using it day after day. In a World where money talks, and customers are king, the only way that vendors will focus more on creating fantastic user experiences is if their customers ask for it. That’s why consumer software, as a rule, offers a better experience; we as consumers demand it.

Vendors: Focus on what works for your target audience

Enterprise vendors then need to stop trying to out do each other with more and more features in their products, and start focusing on delivering simple, easy to use tools that do less but get the job done. Make one version per market segment if need be, but make sure that your products stay true to your intended audience and don’t become so generic that they don’t work for anyone.

The rest of us: Work on defining great experiences

The challenge to the rest of us is to help define what makes a great user experience and help both buyers and vendors understand how to test products in meaningful ways to ensure that they are as great as they can be. No small challenge, but then small challenges aren’t as much fun are they?