Designing Enterprise Technology with a Human Focus

TechnologyJuly 4th, 2016

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We all marvel at the way Uber can get you a taxi with a tap. So much so that we now find the laborious task of raising a hand to hail a cab to be far too much cognitive overhead to be worth the effort. Yet, we sit at our desks every day, utilizing business software that looks and feels like, well, business software.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the next frontier of business transformation will come through better design—more elegant interfaces, coupled with intuitive, intelligent and automated services. Slack’s $3.8B valuation should be proof enough at how big and primed for innovation this market is, as business software seeks to catch up with the quality of user experience offered by consumer applications.

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It’s the beginning of the end for a challenge that has plagued businesses for decades. The search for a better user experience in enterprise technology has run for years, as companies struggled to design quickly enough to meet the needs of their employees. Jakob Nielsen of the Nielsen Norman Group has stated that it typically takes between 2.5 and 3 years for an intranet redesign—by the time the new application is delivered, half the employee base has turned over, and the needs won’t be the same as when they started. It is doomed from the start.
But there is a better way.
Contradictory as it may sound, the focus of designing better internal technology for business shouldn’t actually be the technology at all—it should be the humans that use it: employees.
Here are three key ways to design better enterprise software, with its core users in mind:

How to Design Enterprise Technology with Employees in Mind

1. Design for core employee needs first, not for business objectives.

To create real business value, the best thing a company can do is implement systems that save people time and make their lives easier. Typically, these systems are part of a broad productivity suite of tools, social collaboration program or some kind of central employee knowledge repository. Often, all of these are rolled up in a company portal or intranet.
While the concept of an ‘intranet’ sounds a little outdated, the problems intranets and portals were designed to address have only gotten worse in the decades since their invention. Innovation has stalled in this area, yet the stakes are higher than ever with the explosion of digital information. The fact that an alternative still hasn’t been invented only further demonstrates the lack of progress here.

This is the most important area a company can address to generate value. An intranet isn’t a thing of the past – it is more important than ever, if you break out of the traditional confines of what an intranet is believed to be. By improving the employee experience, you will free up time and improve morale that can be devoted more purposefully to business tasks and collaboration. A clear focus here will reap the greatest immediate reward.

2. Consider the complete context.

Bringing this back to the employees, the only way to improve enterprise software is to move the lens from worrying about the tools that currently exist, to improving the experience and context in which those tools exist.
Don’t focus on what the employee is using—focus on what the employee is trying to do. Often, they are supplementing a standardized suite of productivity or social collaboration tools with hacked-together solutions they have created to augment the process. Understanding these hacks is as important as understanding an existing software platform ecosystem, as it reveals what’s missing.
Once you have an appropriate understanding of the employee experience and the primary points of friction impeding their ability to collaborate with others, share and consume information, and get their job done, you are able to see the true design problem – a problem that only has a fraction to do with the interface itself.

3. Leverage the unique access to employees in your design process

With that design problem in clear focus, one of the best ways to accelerate progress towards a solution comes from leveraging a unique asset that consumer-facing initiatives don’t have – constant and willing access from its users to participate in the design process.
With employee-focused UX initiatives, there is great benefit from forming a “power group,” essentially a cross-section of your users who participate constantly throughout the design process. This means prototypes can be tested and used instantaneously, and feedback can be gathered early and often. The people using and testing your product will have a greater stake—and provide more honest input—in the success of the product, since it is critical to what they do, day in and day out.

This is just the start of the process, but ultimately the most fundamental to deliver true value in solving enterprise UX problems, both in success of the product and speed with which it can be launched.

That last point is critical – be sure to launch and learn fast. A launched product that solves one need in 6 months is better than a product that solves 100 needs, launched in 3 years. Not only will value be gained by adopting this model, but employees will feel their voices are heard as their ideas and needs are implemented into future product releases.

There are a multitude of business problems that require redesigning, but focusing on the human problems first—how people interact, find and share information – and including those people at all stages of the design process is where the most value can be gained. If capitalized on, we are at the beginning of a very exciting revolution in the employee experience – one where technology becomes an enabler, rather than an inhibitor, and actually becomes more invisible to the user because it just works.

If we do this right, we won’t just create better enterprise employee applications—we’ll create better employees. And that’s the real goal.

This article was originally published on HOW Design.