Enterprise UI: $#*! Users Say

punchyThe bitter truth has been repeatedly blogged, tweeted, scrawled on walls,  and -especially- shouted from the tops of nearby trees: Enterprise software UI just plain sucks.  Not a casually annoying, I-wish-that-was-more-convenient letdown,  but rather a sustained soul-stealing, product-of-your-worst-nightmares catastrophe.  You’ll find quite a bit of intelligent conversation around the blogosphere on this topic including Oleg Shilovitsky, Justin Thiele, and Paniedo Business Engineering.

Particularly poor interfaces have become obstacles in of themselves, where adoption and project success are adversely affected by products that cannot be easily understood and operated by human beings.  It certainly sounds like a ridiculous exaggeration – but I’ve quite literally witnessed an otherwise intelligent and emotionally balanced engineer cry real tears over software.  Chained expletives, however, tend to be more common.  That just ain’t right.

A variety of perfectly valid reasons have been widely attributed to the woeful state of Enterprise software:

  • Functionality is what sells.  Enterprise software is sold on functionality.  Can it do X?  Can it do Y?  Buyer requirements are often little more than a list of functions, with little regard or value to the user experience.  And vendors have done well to serve their functionality-obsessed customers by piling on bolt-on capabilities, at the detriment of any sort of usability.
  • Buyers are not users.  IT department leads and executive management write the checks, but rarely have the detailed understanding necessary to evaluate subjective user experience.  Even when user experience requirements are properly assessed, they frequently take a back seat to conservative security requirements, arbitrary technology standards, or legacy compatibilities.
  • Developers are not users.   Developers really have no context for real world use of the product – which is not unreasonable or unexpected, especially considering the scale of development these days.  The underlying problem is the distinct lack of supervisory oversight focused on human factors and UI experience.  The best cooks know the taste of their dishes well.
  • Enterprises are trapped by legacies.  –  Existing enterprise software is entrenched, expensive to replace and takes too long too implement, so old, broken software persists well past expiration dates.

A number of startups are beginning to innovate in the Enterprise space, and the wave of innovation has only begun.  So problem solved, right?

Innovative upstarts are seizing long-held paradigms in the enterprise space and giving them fresh coats of paint, but traction has been limited.  In response, established vendors have  embraced increasingly harsh criticism on software that operates and looks like some kind of vintage 1989 museum piece, by creating new versions that have all the contemporary opulence of 1993.

OK.  So things still aren’t changing  enough.  What are we waiting for?  Lights in the sky?  I believe there are some distinct unaddressed challenges that must be overcome, before the wheels of progress in enterprise software can  begin to turn at speed:

  • Realizing that bad interface costs real $.  Strictly a business challenge:  awareness that UI effectiveness is not a superfluous subtlety but in fact has very real impact on the bottom line.  Poor UI’s impair productivity and can become the source of costly mistakes often attributed to training deficiencies or other factors.  The challenge here is assigning priority to an aspect of business execution that has been notoriously difficult to analyze and quantify in an objective way.
  • Being flexible, but not to a fault.  Often enterprise software is mired in industry specific solutions gleaned from specific customers – and recent innovations have done little to overturn that.   There needs to be a certain level of user-accessible flexibility and openness in order to effectively adapt to unique business styles and maximize the utility of the software.  On the contrary, offering too much flexibility quickly devolves into a development platform  replete with kludgy home-grown customization addressing very specific functionality, regardless of its long term ownership cost.  The right balance requires careful thought.
  • Dynamically embracing both simplicity and complexity.   Taking a strictly consumer model and applying a Facebook/Google minimalist approach isn’t always the right course for enterprise, though recently that is the trend.  Enterprise software is a whole different kind of beast; it’s not just consumer+.  Minimalism fails in complex situations yet complex software is a trap in itself.  The key is to balance the two in a malleable environment that tailors itself to the task – using UI paradigms that quite frankly, don’t really exist yet.

So are we forever condemned to wave our fists at our work screen and devise new and interesting ways to chain expletive combos?  I think not, there’s a new horizon out there that’s embracing these very issues and the new wave is coming sooner than you think.  But the beginning of the future starts with the end user, so make your voice heard!