Design Thinking Shakes Up The Beige World Of Enterprise Software

Supply-chain management software gets sexy. But should it?


Farewell’s website has the familiar look and feel of a startup software launch in the mid-2010s: highly saturated, widescreen colors; slick-as-hell typography and animated infographics; a short promotional film that looks like it was directed by the spawn of Spike Jonze. So far, so business as usual. Except for one thing. Farewell isn’t a new social network or viral video player—it’s enterprise software for managing real-time supply logistics. Or in layman’s terms: Farewell helps inventory managers, warehouse coordinators, and truckers schedule their stuff.


Farewell’s creator Peter Nilsson understands if that description makes your eyes glaze over. That’s why his Swedish company, Break A New Ground (BANG), teamed up with the Stockholm Design Lab to give their app a UI and UX capable of competing with Instagram, Google, and other design-centric consumer app makers. “The transportation sector is quite unsexy, so we wanted to create a product that people actually find attractive,” Nilsson says.

Farewell isn’t the only app trying to sex up the brain-meltingly boring world of enterprise resource planning (ERP)—a mostly invisible but incredibly important software category that lets large organizations manage things such as global cash positions, supply-chain logistics, and product-planning timelines. SAP, the global enterprise-software behemoth, has also invested deeply in interaction design, winning a prestigious Red Dot Award in 2015 for its “Fiori” UX concept. The big idea behind Fiori? Making ERP software that looks like Chartbeat and Tumblr already have for years. If that doesn’t sound too impressive, check out how SAP’s apps used to look.

“The industry is 20 years back in time compared to everything else,” Nilsson says. But why? And is making enterprise software “sexy” even a good thing?

Why ERP Apps Suck

Like many upstart CEOs, Nilsson has choice words about the incumbents he’s hoping to disrupt. “Just have a look at SAP—it’s a fucking disaster,” he says. Sam Yen, SAP’s recently installed chief of design, might bristle at that description, but he doesn’t dispute the sorry state that enterprise software has been mired in for most of its history. “Quite honestly, our customers didn’t prioritize UX design,” he says. “For 30 or 40 years, our whole industry was obsessed with features and functionality. That’s what won you the deal [as a software vendor].” He describes sales pitches with potential customers who would evaluate software by checking off boxes of feature lists. They’d simply purchase whichever product had the most checkmarks.

But there was a method to this madness, according to Nilsson. “Normally, when a company wants to buy a TMS”—transportation management system, the specific kind of ERP utility that Farewell is designed to supplant—”they invest millions of dollars and sign a 10-year contract,” he explains. If installing a consumer app is like sticking a Post-it note on a whiteboard, upgrading an enterprise IT system is like laying a concrete foundation at a construction site: it’s expected to last. So it makes sense to procure ERP software solutions based on “scalability, robustness, and long-term performance,” says Yen, rather than touchy-feely intangibles like “delight” or “usability.”


Furthermore, some enterprise sectors—such as the European transportation and logistics industry that Nilsson worked in for years as a managing director for DHL—are just too broke to keep up with evolving trends in technology and interaction design. “A lot of companies had EBIT margins of 1% or 2%,” he explains. “Where are these companies going to find the money to invest in an expensive new IT system? They might know they need it, but they can’t afford it.”

Good Enterprise UX Is Complicated

What does it even mean for an ERP system to “delight” its end users? It depends. An IT manager might be delighted at how easy the overall system is to install, deploy, and maintain across his organization. But a VP of sales who travels a lot might only care about how easy the system is to interact with from a phone or tablet. And what works for Nike may not make sense for Whole Foods or Bank of America. “The notion of an optimized out-of-the-box experience doesn’t necessarily apply to a lot of the large companies in the world,” Yen explains. “Typically, customers need to bend and modify the application so it can fit into their particular industry or their particular role.”

Simplicity, the god that many consumer-facing UX designers claim to worship, is also not all it’s cracked up to be in the enterprise realm. “In consumer software, there’s an intense focus on eliminating all of the extra stuff on the screen, and distilling it to its pure essence,” Yen says. “In our world, that’s not always appropriate. If you overly simplify a workspace or dashboard, it can actually make it less efficient for someone to accomplish what they’re trying to do.” Sometimes the HR rep might need to access functionality that’s “owned” by the sales force, or vice versa. But if things become too streamlined in the name of “simplicity,” unnecessary friction can start creeping into employees’ workflows.

Why Enterprise UX Matters Now

If corporate drones have been making do with cruddy software for this long without bringing the world to a standstill, why are BANG and SAP suddenly investing in better UX? For one thing, the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) revolution in enterprise IT—spurred by the rise of mobile technology and cloud computing—has raised the bar for users’ expectations while also reducing the direct influence of ERP procurers on the way that employees actually get things done. Don’t like your corporate email and calendar? Push the data through Gmail and iCal. In-person meetings driving you bananas? Take your team onto Slack. “Effective user experience design is now table stakes in the enterprise—it’s not optional,” Yen says. “No matter how strong your business case is [for a certain software system], you can’t just count on employee adoption.”

Nilsson agrees. “Without good UX, you’re out of business,” he says. “People don’t have time or interest if something is too complex or painful to use. The key for our sector is to not make it any more complex and painful than it already is.”


For SAP, meeting these “table stakes” means empowering designers within its own ranks. “Even on our biggest products, the design team can actually say whether we can or cannot ship something,” Yen says. “That might not seem like a big deal at Apple, but this is SAP we’re talking about.”

Farewell, meanwhile, is disrupting the IT procurement cycle itself. Instead of cajoling risk-averse, cash-strapped transport vendors into expensive multiyear contracts, Farewell offers cheap month-to-month subscriptions directly to logistics supervisors and drivers. “It’s like Netflix or Spotify: You go online, create a login, and you can start using it right away,” Nilsson says. “It doesn’t need to go to the board for approval.” And much like Netflix or Spotify, first impressions matter a great deal: that’s why BANG partnered with the Stockholm Design Lab to create Farewell’s sensuously designed, mobile-optimized interface.

In the end, the move toward more humanely designed enterprise software shouldn’t surprise anyone. The apps that really make the world go ’round can’t be downloaded for free from the App Store or Google Play, but the design tactics that drive engagement in the consumer realm can—and do—work in the business world, too. As Nilsson puts it, “Warehouse workers need good UX, too.”

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets