The Future Of Better-Designed Enterprise Software Starts Now

The cost of poorly designed business software is money, time, and organizational health. Let's encourage vendors to learn from the better features of consumer products like Facebook and Amazon that productivity and enjoyment can coexist.

Social media's move down Main Street, with 821 million people using Facebook each month, has changed the face of consumer software forever. Fears that our parents, retailers, and older colleagues will live in the analog world forever finally seems like last year's news. Hallelujah.

Yet most enterprise software vendors and the IT departments procuring their wares haven't caught up. They haven't caught on that people gravitate toward tools where they can make connections—with ideas, insights, and people. We return to tools that don't make us feel stupid. We stick with tools that are friendly, focused, functional, fun, and fast. Shouldn't business tools share those aspirations?

A recent study by AIIM and N:Sight showed that greater than 47% of employees 18-30 and 37% of those 31-45 expect to use the same type of networking tools with their business colleagues as they do with friends and family. Don't you?

As Chris Locke said more than a decade ago in the Cluetrain Manifesto, [in the past] "only corporations could provide the kind of resources needed to process even modest volumes of information. Today people have that kind of power in their rec rooms. If the company doesn't come through with the kind of information and delivery that turns them on—provides learning, advances careers, and nurtures the unbridled joy of creation—well, hey, they'll just do it elsewhere. Maybe in their garage." With smartphones and tablet technology, our rec room can now be the rest room or a coffee shop as easily as a cube or meeting room, bypassing corporate firewalls.

Bad design has more than morale and productivity consequences. Hick's Law states that the time it takes to make a decision increases as the number of alternatives increase. Most enterprise software prioritizes advanced capabilities over usability, let alone making well-informed decisions. As systems get more flexible (the holy grail of many designers), usability usually decreases.

When launching Peoplesoft's usability organization in 1998, we sought more than creating a wizbang interface. We aimed for productivity strides from every customer. I'd convinced our CFO that our education organization's prime profit could be far surpassed if the software didn't require so much training. With help from Judee Humberg, who had headed usability at Intuit, we set out to understand what people wanted to do. We then worked to create an attractive software experience that supported people's goals.

Does this seem like too much to ask of your vendors? Have you grown accustomed to archaic software, accepting that that's the way it has to be? Pause. Take a deep breath. Look through some of these inspiring designs. Then plan an intervention for your tech buyers.

The workforce of the future has arrived.

Wide research on demographic shifts show that organizations and their tools need to work differently to attract, retain, and inspire talent. These shifts are caused by differences in generation, gender, economics, and consumer expectations.

Never before have four different generations, with four different sets of experiences, been in the workplace together. A young colleague, expecting instant answers and constant connectivity works beside a coworker ready to retire who doesn't want to waste time navigating inefficient systems. Make it work or they walk...or worse yet, squander your money for hours every day.

Although there’s a perception older workers don't widely embrace technology, a report from Kathryn Zickuhr at the Pew Trust showed the relative simplicity and convenience of cell phones means that 68% of adults in the oldest generation in the workforce use them. More surprising? Your older workers are almost as likely as anyone else to send text messages (though surely not as many as younger workers), which means even they are committed to better ways of getting things done.

We may not have entered the Jetson's age (yet), but we're close. Success will go to businesses savvy enough to understand, learn from, and leverage critical shifts.

Complexity is not the enemy of simplicity.

Daisy System alum Moshe Gray said to me recently, "No one has invented truly new software in decades. Everything is still just a thin veneer over a spreadsheet." It seems that way. It looks that way, too.

Bill Kutik, in a recent Radio Show interview, asked me if those foolish requests for making software look as easy to use as had been replaced by appeals for Facebook-like interfaces. Yes, they have. For all the reasons Facebook is so popular.

Unfortunately, developers often dismiss these requests, arguing that the processes companies need automated are more complex than Amazon or Facebook. But is that true?

Amazon is mediating access to well over a billion items disbursed across over 25 million square feet of space, serving 137 million customers a week, each with unique credit cards, mailing addresses and e-book platforms. And their interface is still busier than it needs to be.

Facebook has more than 900 million objects that people interact with (page, groups, events, and community pages), available in 70 languages, and 250 million new photos uploaded each day, connecting people across groups and timelines. As archaic as Facebook may feel, especially when they roll out yet another new design, it expertly hides data being gathered and serves up the detail just in time.

Alan Perlis once wrote, "Simplicity does not precede complexity, but follows it." In software design it can and it should. Well designed software doesn't expect the people using it to understand the implementation model under the hood any more than Honda requires you to manipulate the engine in order to drive the car.

People don't solve problems with features.

A good interface directs our attention to the purpose of the tool, rather than overwhelming us with all the things we could do but don't need to. Apple's streamlined interfaces have reset our expectations for how all applications, even data-heavy apps, can present information in clean, clear ways.

The edge capabilities of software need to be designed and programmed, but they should never be the design focus. Developers need to ask, "Will Phoebe want to perform this operation often? Will she ever?" With this knowledge, they should prioritize functionality. People have no patience for software that wastes their time.

"Reducing a product's definition to a list of features and functions ignores the real opportunity—orchestrating technological capability to serve human needs and goals," says Alan Cooper. "Too often the features of our products are a patchwork of nifty technological innovations structured around a marketing requirements document or organization of the development team with too little attention paid to the overall user experience."

At the 2011 HR Tech Conference this point screamed out during the session focused on "Awesome New Technology for HR." The first few vendors proudly demonstrated thoughtful applications. The audience oohed and ahhed at the potential they've wanted for years. Some of their interfaces, however, looked like clunky ERP systems of years past. Screen after screen of radio buttons and sorting list views give the impression the concepts may be awesome, but the time-to-market delivery cycle probably took way too long.

Then Aneel Bhusri showed Workday for iPad, which provides mobile access to Workday apps. In doing so, he did more than offer an alternative to leaders who have had to be deskbound to gain business intelligence about their workforce. He showed that people can gain insight into their workforce and make critical decisions about approving promotions, new headcount and time off, in a clear, people-friendly view. This wasn't light location tracking or game-playing. It was a heavyweight data-intensive application presented in a useful, clean way.

Bhusri was followed by a demo from Keas, an online game that promotes employee wellness where people challenge one another to get healthier. The UI was clever, bright, and modern.

Cubevibe's Aaron Aycock also showed that a tricky process—real-time monitoring the sentiment of your workforce—need not be more awkward than talking with people about how they feel about their jobs.

With these demos, the energy in the room changed. People sat on the edge of their seats. The designs of these applications gave the impression that the tools weren't built by geeks only for geeks. They seemed straightforward, and people-focused. They respected people's time by keeping them focused on what needed to be done. They didn't scream, "Get a better job!"

Featuritus costs more than money.

Most of us think about applications in terms of activities. Consider health care. You want this new year to be the healthiest ever, but you remember your doctor's office's crowded waiting room, your love of bacon's sizzle, and the rub of a blister from your favorite running shoes. Meanwhile, technology providers think in terms of solutions—wanna buy a Fitbit? There's a disconnect between what people want to do with technology and what technology vendors sell.

The cost of this disconnect is money, time, and organizational health.

Technology companies can create something modern, simply displaying the complex, and putting goals ahead of features. IBM put technology from Watson to work into software for clients like Seton Healthcare, aiming to lower readmission rates by putting powerful data in the hands of the real decision-makers, patients themselves. Using advanced analytics capabilities plus a rich and simple interface, they put critical information at the point of need.

These beautiful, simple, powerful tools also can nourish our whole selves.

No matter what work we do or our obligations for today, most of us share some simple personal goals. Workplace focused, they are personal accomplishments. For instance, most of us aim each year to advance in our careers, learn more about our fields, and set a good example for others.

Products designed to achieve business goals—at the peril of personal goals—fail. Our personal objectives must be met. When we submit a budget quickly, including perspective from all stakeholders, we have time to focus on the work in our midst. If a customer is delighted with the service you could offer, she's more likely to help you make another sale. When you can make decisions about your own health, and that of your department or your whole organization, without frustration—or even with glee—your goals are more effectively achieved.

Just recently I was reminded by Judee Humburg that easy-to-use, enticing software stems from how natural and intuitive it flows with each click, how easy it is to learn, how well the functionality fits with the priority activities, its appeal, and how reliable it is when you're doing the work. Our whole experience creates one perception that either encourages or thwarts our interest and success in using it again—and again.

Start now. Pressure your vendors to do better. Don't settle. Run simple usability testing with eight new hires. If you must, have a transition plan.

Be courageous and doggedly determined to create a healthy year.

[Image: Flickr user escapedtowisconsin]

Add New Comment


  • Simon Minitzer

    what an enjoyable read. we not even at the tip of the iceberg in my opinion.

  • Ben Widdowson

    Hi Marcia,

    Fascinating article. I particularly liked this comment,

    "Products designed to achieve business goals--at the peril of personal goals--fail."

    It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes,

    "Business intelligence sits in chairs not spreadsheets."

    I agree with your point entirely, providing tools that enable users to easily find, share and collaborate on enterprise data is the key. All too often their default solution is a spreadsheet because its not easy enough to do it any other way.


    Ben Widdowson

  • Ric Ratkowski

    Great article Marcia! 
    I think it is very timely. 

    I’m seeing two developments in the market that will hopefully
    expedite the development and implementation of better designed enterprise
    software.   The first is social media the
    second is SaaS.   (Ginger identified SaaS  in her  comment saying: “I sincerely believe SaaS
    (real SaaS with all customers on one version) is the only hope for innovative usable
    solutions in today's rapid pace of innovation”.

    The “ahh moment” for me working with social media was when I
    realized: “Soon there will be no place to hide”.  Social media will expose all the blemishes
    and warts of a company and at the same time provide a prescription for the
    company to fix the warts and blemishes by addressing those comments.

    In the past, as a customer, if I was unhappy with a company because
    of their product or service my only recourse was to stop doing business with
    them or tell the better business bureau. 
    With social media you can now blog, tweet, Yelp etc. about it and let
    the world know about the warts.   Many vendors are already taking it
    seriously.  You can measure the focus by looking
    at the increase in tweets over time on the #cxo tags (customer experience

    I also believe SaaS will push on premises vendors to be more
    responsive because the SaaS vendor has to be more responsive because of the nature of the SaaS customer/vendor relationship.  SaaS vendors earn their customer’s business
    every day.  For a SaaS vendor a sale does
    not guarantee an annuity like it does for on premises software vendors because
    the SaaS customer can always take their business elsewhere.  This raises the bar for both usability as well as insuring the software solves the customer's problems.

    Also, because of the nature of SaaS and “platform as a
    service”, individual SaaS vendors do not need to solve the entire problem
    within a domain area.  They can focus on
    a specific area and nail it by solving a problem and educating the
    customer on what they should be doing (I learned web marketing from a SaaS

    As an example, I’ve seen companies and vendors struggle with
    Business Intelligence (BI) solutions for the last ten years.  Now I’m seeing SaaS vendors deliver specific
    solutions that provide in-depth analysis and reporting designed specifically
    for the problem they solve.   Two examples are Hubspot and Jbara Software.  Both are SaaS applications that provide
    discrete reports focused on the specific information in the right context so I
    can make better decisions.  In both cases
    I would have never thought up the reports on my own.  The IP of these SaaS vendors guided me to
    what was important. 

    As a second example, at prior employer we used 11 different
    SaaS applications to solve their marketing automation/web marketing/ppc/seo
    optimization.   I think of the process as
    SaaS Imagineering, i.e. building the solution you want by combining SaaS vendor
    solutions written to work together. 
    (BTW: for reference here is a link to a blog post and recorded preso as
    an example of the 11 systems integrated to provide the solution they wanted.

    I think these two factors will put pressure on the on premises
    vendors  to design better enterprise

  • Aaron Aycock

    Thanks for mentioning CubeVibe. We agree that enterprise software doesn't have to be complicated and confusing. 

    And you've recommended the most important step in the design process: simple usability tests. This is hands-down the easiest way to assess and improve interface design. For a quick-start guide, we love the book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug. (Amazon link:

  • Kevin Prentiss

    Great article Marcia. I love that you come down, in the article and in
    the comments, on "pressure the vendor." Great User Experience has to
    be a shared value with buyer and vendor- it takes collaboration and
    maintenance over time.

    Most RFP and bake off processes start with a long list of features to
    see how many boxes can be checked.  Vendors are pressured to throw
    things in and clutter becomes a function of the process. I would love to see purchasing decisions made with: "impress me withyour ability to tell me what should be possible, but hidden, and whatshould be left off of the feature list entirely."

  • James Taylor


    Another thought provoking post - thanks. While I love the thrust of your post I have to disagree with "Most enterprise software prioritizes advanced capabilities over usability". Most are as dumb as toast, representing interfaces to underlying data structures and nothing more. As you quoted "Everything is still just a thin veneer over a spreadsheet." In particular there is little or no insight being applied - most "analytical applications" are just pretty pictures presenting the data being managed - and it is astonishingly rare for any software to act intelligently on your behalf. 

    Your example of the nice interface from Seton shows what I mean. Decision-making (by the software) is critical to this interface as the software decides what actions might be effective for this person, decides what the top contributors to their risk are, decides what is the difference in life insurance cost might be and so on. Analytics play a key role in these decisions but so does embedded know-how, best practices, policy and even regulation. To present this kind of clean, actionable interface the SOFTWARE must make a whole series of decisions even if it is going to ask the user to take the big decision. When writing my new book, Decision Management Systems, I got to talk to companies building some truly innovative systems but they remain a tiny minority.

    This lack of any kind of decision-making on the part of enterprise software also explains many user interface complaints as humans struggle to get the software to do something it could have figured out how to do on its own. And these kinds of passive systems represent a serious risk when you look at the workforce of the future. When I look at the 20-somethings I know entering the workforce they simply won't do some of the things done manually today (like processing claims or pricing loans). They will simply assume a computer can (and should) do it for them. Companies whose systems don't make these repetitive decisions may soon find they can't hire anyone to replace those who handle this today as they retire.

    Time for systems that actually help run the company....

    James Taylor
    CEO Decision Management Solutions

  • Ray Deis

    Marcia, this is the best article I've read about usability and the user experience in a long time. I'm saving it in my deskside reference collection and sharing it with many.

    For me Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication. I'm reminded of the quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1939: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

    When I review the design of application user interfaces, I like to say Don't Make Me Think based on the book by Steve Krug.

    Part of the work I do as a learning professional is to develop "Help and How To" content to assist people with using applications. I always think the best user guide or quick reference would be none.

    I'm hoping this year usability gets the focus and recognition it deserves and developers will first of all consider usability in the design then strive to build the best user experience they can.

  • Aaron Silvers (@aaronesilvers)

    Twenty years ago, when enterprise software first became a thing, the users were mostly non-technical by nature. The tasks that software performed were extremely low-level by today's standards and the experience with the software... well, it was the best guess of what people could do at the time.  There weren't a whole lot of people talking about the user experience... we hardly knew who the users were.

    But it's been twenty years. The entire experience of computing has been pushed down to one year-olds. And entire workforce has grown up with increasing savvy when it comes to working with software in all its manifestations...

    And the one place it continually lacks is in large organizations, particularly in the software that tends to be in those large organizations (I'm looking at you, ambiguous enterprise software with three initials for a name).

    What I love about these examples, Marcia, is that on the team that is delivering these tools resides someone who is actively advocating for -- *designing for* -- the actual user: not just designing to the task that needs to be accomplished, but for who must accomplish the task. That sense of empathy is what's missing from many of the enterprise systems I've had to work with. There's not one task I've had to do in the systems I've had to work with that encouraged me to *want* to do it.

    Much of what goes into experience design, from a learning & performance perspective, is to stop focusing on filling people's heads with information (because there's too much of it) and to start embedding information in the environment where people do things they need to do. When I think about the interfaces of these wildly complicated (not complex) systems, it requires so much of the end-user to remember all the caveats that go into using such software effectively.

    I look at the interfaces above and think my 7yo could probably navigate it if she had to. And that's EXACTLY how we should be designing systems for the enterprise, because it encourages people to do the things that need to get done; it removes the obstacles to doing things well and encourages knowledge workers to work with that build up of knowledge rather than expending it on things that would be cheaper and more easily solved before they must interface with a system.

  • Ruchit Garg

    Design is new IP and I believe if you have a better designed product you are good.

  • Jeff Hurt


    Thanks for tackling this issue head on. I've found that in the nonprofit association world, many organizations will use more robust enterprise software unless it ties directly to their association management software database. They have actually crippled their organization from being able to adopt and adapt some of the new social tools that allow people to connect with ideas, insights and people as you say. I've seen some of these organizations spending thousands of dollars to try to create their own software from scratch which then hamstrings everyone at the organization.

    So what would you say to the IT department of today?

  • Marcia Conner

    Here's what I'd say: Stick with what you know, and spend your time getting better at that. [Of course I'm a big advocate of learning new things, but that's different than turning your organization into a science project.] You, like IT departments in organizations of all types and sizes, too often don't recognize just how fast technology expectations are changing... and how high the bar has been set. Your time is better spent helping people succeed and vendors do the right thing than try to do their jobs too.

  • Mark Levitt

    Exactly, Marcia. 
    Unfortunately, improving the usability for enterprise software usually means making a difficult product a little less difficult to use.  The mass influx of mobile applications on consumer-focused smartphones and tablets has dramatically and permanently changed user expectations about what is possible.  Focused, task oriented apps that present only the most relevent and up-to-date information for quick viewing and manipulation on a small screen with a couple finger movements are what workers now expect to use for accessing ERP, CRM, BI, CM and other enterprise systems.  Enterprise IT needs to respond to these fair demands by developing, buying or certifying bite/right-sized apps on multiple platforms (iOS, Android, BB, Windows...) to ensure the security and compliance that their organizations require.

    Mark Levitt

  • Paula Thornton

    The first problem starts with a long-term legacy of operating -- we have a concept of what we think 'software' is and what it takes to produce it (a 'formal', managed process). No one is challenging that. They should be. Alan Cooper has been challenging this paradigm for years -- how much has changed?

    Even companies who have supposedly embraced agile -- one quick look under the covers and they're doing the same old controlled 'machine work'. They're putting out the wrong solutions faster.

    In company after company, they're working on putting out products without product designers, and when they do, they require that the product designer serve as 'appendages' to their existing processes, not reinvent the process to focus on design (not 'the' design -- but design as a fundamental operating approach).

    In many cases where 'design' is mentioned it's really a misnomer for decoration ('clever' and 'bright' should not be facades for functions that still do not fundamentally provide simple, needed solutions). Design starts with the 'constraints' and creates a solution -- not some silly nonsense called 'requirements'. There's a big difference in digging for the artifacts of constraints vs. soliciting requirements (and yet almost everyone is still chasing requirements).

    "People have no patience for software that wastes their time." 
    No one can hope to not waste someone's time if we don't intimately know what it is that they're doing and why (although sadly, often workers mindlessly go through some motion they've been 'told' to). It all has to be challenged.

    The entire SDLC has been broken for years, but no one will admit it. You'd think that an 80% failure rate would capture someone's attention. And trying to suggest that Agile will cure it (http://www.enterpriseappstoday... is wrong-minded. I've seen all sorts of Agile teams still put out useless stuff. If you're not listening to the answers, you don't know what the questions are. The goal is not to start with the questions (e.g. requirements), but to focus on the answers (what's already going on in the real work context, not holed up in a room asking questions).

    Everyone on a project is trying to come up with 'an' answer -- often there are many answers and all of them are right. Who just uses Twitter? -- each social media app has a different focus/function, even though there is overlap.

    I'm all for putting the pressure on vendors. The problem is in getting them to listen...then to change. They are often 1) too highly invested in a path they've taken 2) too tied up with the scenarios of their biggest clients 3) too influenced by investors who also have no idea as to what the answers are.

    So far the winners are things that were experiments -- not destinations (and in almost every case, their original destination has changed radically), and none of them were intended as enterprise solutions.

  • Marcia Conner

    Fabulous perspective, stirring up a slew of further topics! This goes deep. Although I worked in the technology field for a long time, not much of that time was focused on product development. My work focused on the people in those organizations being productive themselves and fostering a culture of ongoing improvement. When the developers and designers, the program managers and product managers took off those hats and reflected on themselves as employees and leaders, they dealt with the same issues as their customers--many of those you list here. It was stunning at times, outright laughable at others, and hopeful every once in a while. None of this is simple, but it’s not unsolvable either. A sea change of customer expectations, I believe, has the potential to change even the crustiest nonsensical processes.

  • Ginger Taylor

    Glad you're focusing on this topic.  

    I run an online Community and get instant "feedback" when we build something confusing.  The cost of supporting our users spikes when we make a mistake.  We have the proper incentive to fix quickly.  I assume this is true for Facebook and Amazon too and why they're easy to use.I think the biggest difficulty for traditional on-premise enterprise vendors is that they have too many customers on too many versions and with too many customizations and too big a lead time for upgrades.  They make work their butts off to build something nice.  But it takes another 3 years to offer an improvement to their customers.  By then, the world has changed.  I sincerely believe SaaS (real SaaS with all customers on one version) is the only hope for innovative usable solutions in today's rapid pace of innovation.Again, great article!

  • Marcia Conner

    It's heartwarming to see examples of social media tools, like online communities, helping technology organizations listen actively -- and respond in a relationship-oriented way. Even the vendors juggling many versions on different platforms will grow to realize that people are expecting this sort of attention and what once could be ignored, can't be any longer. SaaS may make it much much easier, but even on premise providers will have to find a way.

  • Aaron Aycock

    Thanks for mentioning CubeVibe. We agree that enterprise software doesn't have to be complicated and confusing. 

    And you've recommended the most important step in the design process: simple usability tests. This is hands-down the easiest way to assess and improve interface design. For a quick-start guide, we love the book, Rocket Surgery Made Easy by Steve Krug. (Amazon link:

    Aaron Aycock
    Founder, CubeVibe

  • Keith Macintyre

    After recently evaluating enterprise software applications for clients I'd have to agree.  Unfortunately, large companies are often too paralyzed by process to be innovative, and try to manage development teams the same as other areas of business.  

  • Marcia Conner

    Thanks for the comment, Keith. Before even working on changing their own internal development processes, big companies are in a position to listen to their employees' frustrations and begin pushing back on those who serve them. Vendors will often make changes for a big client long before they make those same changes for several small ones.And we're not talking about "fix this or that" changes, rather taking a different approach to focusing on the goals and overarching needs of those using the tools. 

  • alvincrespo

    Great Article! However this one line:

    "Unfortunately, developers often dismiss these requests, arguing that the processes companies needs automated are more complex than Amazon or Facebook. But is that true?"You go on to explain the complexity of Amazon and Facebook in not only the design but its software design to meet its demands, so obviously there are three things we can take away from this part of the article:
    1. Software design is complex.
    2. Companies need to be aware of this complexity.
    3. Developers are responsible in communicating this complexity and bringing solutions that enable better designed enterprise software.