Rob Barton | April 29, 2015

Designing internal software that looks as good as Apple

In the last few years, and thanks mainly to Apple, digital user-experiences are now finally user-friendly. From comparing and buying insurance online, to analyzing your daily workout routines, the average user of the web has simplified and enriched their lives in ways unimaginable only 10 years ago.

One interesting parody of the ‘consumer’ is that most of us are also the ‘employee’. And in too many cases, the experience of user-friendly software vanishes at the office door. Seemingly simple tasks such as submitting time reports, sharing on a corporate intranet, or logging in to a client portal have long been hampered by clunky software design.

Nowadays employees expect the same ease-of-use and simplicity in their work tools they have come to expect on the consumer internet.

The consumerisation of the enterprise is accelerating as more and more Millennials enter the workforce, and the pace of product innovation will quicken in the next 12-18 months. Likewise, the division between internal and external communication continues to blur, and social media is a key factor enhancing connections and collaboration in the workplace.

As organisations adapt to the speed and scale of today’s economy, most enterprise applications fail to deliver an intuitive, user-friendly experience. Yet employee expectations and behavior are increasingly shaped by their consumer experiences online, in social media and on mobile devices. Companies that are able to deliver user-friendly internal software will gain a competitive advantage in building partner relationships, recruiting and retaining talent, and in sharing and storing institutional knowledge.

All companies, from tiny startups to large multinationals, need internal software. Yet the software companies require their employees to use is often confusing and unattractive.

One primary reason enterprise software has traditionally lagged so far behind consumer software is that the buyers aren’t the end users. IT buyers’ main concerns (such as stability and security) are typically different than the end user’s, whose needs include ease-of-use and design simplicity. Another problem is that enterprise software is often less accountable than public applications that will be tested, critiqued and improved by a relatively large and vocal user base with each new release. Additionally, the cost to upgrade legacy systems can be daunting and many large corporations are fearful of investing in cloud-based startups, hewing to the mentality that “nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM.”

Fast forward to 2015 and product innovation in the enterprise has come a long way. Software as a service (SaaS) providers such as Zendesk have created consumerised applications for corporate functions such as help desk ticketing and business intelligence analysis, and Microsoft have improved their SharePoint platform allowing more design flexibility.

Employees have in part forced the market to respond by taking matters into their own hands. As people discover free or inexpensive tools for collaboration and other common workplace tasks, they have learned to bypass procurement. As a result, developers are building more consumer-friendly apps for the workplace such as Dropbox for document storage, Asana for collaboration and Honey for internal communications.

Creating consumer focused applications for the enterprise also includes mobile applications. The rapid shift to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, with three-quarters of US companies allowing some sort of BYOD usage, suggests that employees are so devoted to their smartphones they’re willing to bear (most of) the cost. About three-quarters of companies have a BYOD policy and 81 percent of employees use at least one of their own devices for business use.

The gap between consumer applications and corporate software is widening further as mobile technologies open up new capabilities. Consumer software is integrating geo-location services, voice inputs, optical character recognition, audio/video and touch capabilities. Yet enterprise developers, with few exceptions, are releasing inadequate mobile versions of their apps. They lack the innovation and inspiration consumer app developers are harnessing in mobile. Companies that are able to exploit the native capabilities of mobile devices to create consumerised B2B applications will just expand their competitive advantage with potential partners and employees.

In conclusion, building successful enterprise apps is the same as building successful consumer apps. Software designers and developers creating enterprise solutions should apply the same rigorous methodologies to building employee, b2b or partner apps as consumer app innovators do. This requires diligent process including conducting stakeholder interviews, reviewing the performance of any existing digital properties, creating user personas, performing a heuristic evaluation and user testing. And this process needs to be an iterative part of the build, measure, learn loop to constantly push for better products.

Rob Barton

Head of Interactive + Principal