Enterprise Software

Enterprise UX Workflow

April 3, 2023
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Here’s a quiz: what’s the kind of UX that’s not web, mobile apps or things that regular Joes use? That leaves just one possibility: Enterprise UX.

Enterprise UX has been defined here and there; mostly, this field as being focused on software people use at work. We use the term ‘software’ when describing what enterprise UX applies to because the word implies a depth of interaction and pure power that the term ‘web app’ just doesn’t quite carry. Enterprise software however can also be referred to as B2B SaaS (software as a service), or complex products.

If you find yourself suddenly designing these complex software applications, you’ll need to get situated with the type of thing you’re working on and integrate and emphasize some parts of your existing UX workflow. There are unique parts of the UX workflow for enterprise applications, it’s not the same as what you’d expect for a consumer app or web project.

Consumer apps vs enterprise apps

Traditionally, consumer apps have taken up the UX budget because when individual consumers table flip about the UX and leave, this has a real and immediate impact on businesses. Cancelling a consumer experience is very simple and can happen in a minute or less in many cases, so UX has been a necessity.

Enterprise software products have been deliberately set up to avoid speedy cancellation. Signing longer-term contracts and having more expensive setup processes: many products rely on the dynamic of being ‘hard to leave’ rather than being hyper-relevant, useful and enjoyable to use. However, there are a lot of products in the enterprise space which are month-to-month commitments, and thus the barrier to exiting them is lower. Effectively this puts them within the same playing field as consumer products, so having good UX becomes really important.

New startups are also forcing established B2B SaaS products to step their UX game up, as their “MVPs” and early versions are much more slick, easy to use and generally less clunky than incumbents. These new companies have less difficulty building and maintaining features due to less tech debt, so established, clunkier products are feeling the competitive heat🔥 (slash burn).

It could be argued that consumer digital experiences are also elevating our overall UX standards, so the perception of the UX quality by customers is causing more dissatisfaction by virtue of what they are comparing their work UX to.

So what do you get when you combine the refinement of consumer experiences with vastly more complex and in-depth interaction requirements and a LOT more data?

Enterprise-grade User Experience: User experience which combines the high standards (including fine esthetics, transitions, pleasant to use qualities), with the complexity of enterprise use cases to create robust, scaleable and high-quality interactions.

The UX workflow for enterprise software

Getting oriented with working in this context is different from what you might be used to – but if you learned how to design and/or build stuff in the past, you can do this, don’t worry. Working on complex products demands a levelling up in your workflow and skills around:

  • Onboarding to the new industry and subject matter – learning complicated stuff and remembering it, extracting information from subject matter experts (SMEs) and other sources proactively
  • Collaboration workflow – being a whiz at drawing out complicated things and learning the quirks of a system with help from your interdisciplinary friends
  • Understanding users – taking a more “Workflow” or work-oriented approach to users and preparing user tests with the right “data” setup
  • Integrating rules and laws – learning the dry and not-so-fun constraints which are dictated by the legal frameworks and compliance requirements
  • Advanced interaction design – unlike consumer or web contexts, things can get much weirder and you have to prepare more “unhappy paths” in your design
  • Letting data into your heart – learning to embrace and wrangle data – whether it’s in tables, dashboards or other representations.
  • Designing for lots of personas – figuring out priority for a lot of personas and a lot of different sets of motivations and workflows, some are counterintuitive.
  • Mapping rationale and speaking about your design choices – yes this is always relevant but in enterprise, it needs to be elevated to the next level
  • Design documentation – taking this more seriously than ever 😉

Now, let’s dig into specific areas you can grow and adapt your UX workflow as someone working on complex products.🤸🏽‍♂️

Onboarding: become a student learning technical subject matter

It normally takes quite a while to onboard to complex products, the more you do it, the better you get at it! Everyone expects the learning curve to be there, so don’t feel too weird about it taking several weeks.

Quickly parsing, gathering and synthesizing complex information is key to thriving in an enterprise software environment, especially if the domain is a complex one with a lot of nuances.

UX workflow tips:

  • Grill subject matter experts – find whoever will talk to you and grill them about the domain. If you can be super proactive and find out who they are and make them your best friend.
  • Do secondary research – find out some of the basics about the industry, being creative with sources of information (they can range from academic to private forums, datasets etc)
  • Document and write things down – building your discipline around writing is a great thing in this context. Applying a “student” mentality where you “study” your notes and absorb the information, try creative ways to do this and learn what really works for you. The best way to retain info is up to you.

Map the ecosystem of your company and product

If you’re in a new role at a new company, getting to know the business side of things is going to inform how your work works! Knowing this stuff will help you determine, design-wise, where you can make an impact and how that impact might be measured.

UX workflow tips

  • Map the org structure – find out who all the teams are and what they are responsible for
  • Find out the business model of the product or suite of products including how long the terms are, the relative cost of the product
  • Ideal customer profile (ICP) – the company might have an established ICP or they might be searching for product market fit
  • Sales tactics – how does the sales team “spin” the product, how do they demo it?

Get to know enterprise products

This is something you might not think of, but get in there and start looking around! Many but not all enterprise products have a free trial you can sign up for. This will help you get in the mindset of enterprise.

UX workflow tips

  • Explore enterprise software products on their free trial (look in the domain of marketing which is super competitive and has a lot of products), product hunt is another great place to look!
  • Look at the behaviour and handling of data tables, filters, data dashboards, navigation – all can get you oriented

Interdisciplinary collaboration

The subject matter, complexity of the software and lots of other variables make it so truly you can’t do it alone. Gone are the days of whippin’ something up solo 🤠. You’ll need to make collaboration second nature whether that’s between designers, SMEs, BAs, devs, product managers or QAs. People’s collective brains need to be leveraged to make something good come out of the other end. The precise workflow here will be super unique to your crew, but here are some habits well-functioning teams employ.

UX workflow tips:

  • Mapping technical detail with developers – this can be work sessions or shared documentation on the logic of how things work
  • Discussions with SMEs – working with your neighborhood data scientist, AI modeller or genetics counsellor to understand the context you work in. People in software “implementation” roles and even support people can be amazing helpers. Seeking them out proactively will be a godsend.
  • Gathering alignment – this is a skill of designers PMs and others alike, making sure that in the midst of all this collab we really understand what our joint goal is.

Becoming friends with data

Enterprise UX has rich and vast datasets. If we abstract what that means, this means that data needs to be created and modified by users in various ways. Much of the enterprise software out there is built for knowledge workers, which means they aren’t pushing data through an assembly line; they are leveraging it to make important (and high stake) decisions. Certainty is important. Giving users an abundance of power to find, scan, filter, and interpret data is essential in enterprise software.

For example, users might navigate, (to a power-user level), parse a data table, this likely involves filtering it down to find a specific subset. This data is also leveraged to be interpreted in a dashboard (or ten) these deep dives will get you warmed up for these kind of design workflows and share the best practices!

The good news is, even though kicking up the nerd factor by 100x and powering through the learning part, is that once you get past the initial data overwhelm stage, that’s when it gets wildly interesting! So stay with it.

UX workflow tips

  • Find out how your data works – dig into how the data works with devs and how it looks (ex. Is this column normally 3 characters of data or 24 characters of data. That vital info will affect a lot.
  • Buying and integrating data vis books – you’ve really graduated to the next level when you do this! Reference books help a lot in giving you good ideas
  • Explore data vis libraries – there are ootb tools that visualize data, if you know them well it’ll help you design with the devs

Understanding workplace users

You’ve done user testing and interviews before, now that it’s on a complex product, your approach and workflow should shift a little. What’s nice about interviewing people about software that they use at work, is that they have a flow they do every day that they can explain to you. Looking “over their shoulder” and mapping that, can be incredible.

UX workflow tips:

  • Leverage user journeys – these are kind of amazing as a tool to use regularly because their information is so succinct in this format. You can also do them at various scales, from “sending an invoice” to “selling a house”
  • Navigate top secret context – sometimes customers can’t share their “instance” or the software with you directly, let them navigate your demo machine.
  • Prepare prototypes with specifics in mind – the data that you populate in a clickable prototype might just distract and famboozle users (needless to say, trash your lorem ipsum). If data and content isn’t representative, some people really can’t get past it. Be sure you’ve removed anything that’ll seem weird or jarring, lest you waste a session of someone’s time.

Understanding many personas

Often in enterprise software, we have a dynamic of a buyer and a user being different people with different roles. You might see “demo features” in your product i.e. products that look cool in a demo (which sells the product to a buyer), but aren’t really used by end-users.

We already appreciate that different personas have different goals of course, they also have different levels of permissions and access to functionality in your application. You’ll have to know how this is set up, in order to design for it.

UX workflow tips

  • Map personas – Get your head together with who is who and who does what. Not every complex product will need this, but the ones that do, really do.
  • Use the product “as” each of the different personas – pay attention to the interplay between users and their access levels

UX copy

With more technical subject matter, you cannot get away with lorem ipsum or placeholder text. UX copy and the precision of that copy is serious business in enterprise UX workflows. As you’ll see in user testing, the words on the screen can distract people to the point that your session isn’t recoverable.

UX workflow tips

  • Continuously audit your products’ UX copy – whether it’s in-app copy, help and tooltips and user manual documentation, you want to suss out how things are being describe to users, pay attention to the verbs for actions and industry-specific words
  • Inheriting language matching mental models is super interesting in enteprise software, you might inherit vocabulary from another product that feels bizarre but actually works for users. For example, in SAP they refer to people as “objects” so HR products might use this same language (a painful descriptor for a human-centred designer 🫠).

Advanced interactions

In enterprise UX, workflows have multiple steps, actors and timelines at play. There’s a lot of inter-dependence between these things as you might expect. The actors themselves, or ‘personas’ as we like to call them in UX need to be considered deeply (their role, workflow, motivators), many of them with wildly different goals.

The people using enterprise products, may use them every day as their main work tool, so good design matters a great deal to them. Good design can catapult efficiency, reduce rage and bring out the potential in that person at work. The potential to reduce critical errors is also critical.

The stakes in these tools aren’t superficial; they don’t just cost the personal energy of a person, decisions in software may be life or death (think the world of medicine and transport). Our responsibility as makers of these products can’t be overstated.

UX workflow tips

  • Map unhappy paths enthusiastically – and check these over with devs, QAs, all the relevant people
  • Prepare for extremes – data can take many forms, so make sure you cover those
  • Consider batch actions – integrate keyboard actions and batch actions into your interaction where it makes sense
  • Appreciate high stakes – think about when people would be worried, like sending a money transfer of $100k or giving permissions to their financial data. Make your UI react in accordance with that.
  • Take system status more seriously than ever – there are states your system can get into that you never imagined!

Oddly in our field of user experience at large, we have a lot of superficial introductory interaction education, and not a lot of complex, in-depth scenario-based education resources. Most of us are winging in, building off consumer product patterns and testing as we go.

Expressing design rationale

Friends, this is always key of course. But if you assume that your features and functionality are more complex than before, this means your brain and the “why” of what you’re doing needs to be even more clear. The why can be based on a myriad of variables, technical constraints, laws, user needs, best practices, data, etc etc.

UX workflow tips

Verbal articulation. This goes hand in hand with subject matter knowledge, technical knowledge and collaboration: verbally articulating the ins and outs of your ideas, interactions and rationale couldn’t be more important. When you collaborate and actively work with other people your words matter. When things are complex, the crew can get discombobulated easily, wrap that in the context that designers dip in and out from detail to abstraction and you’ve got a perfect storm for useless and confusing conversations (which are SUPER expensive).

Design rationale documentation – the why of what you do needs to be written somewhere when the time comes (we have an article which explores documenting design rationale, giving you solid principles and ideas for your team).

Design documentation

Document it or it didn’t happen. Interestingly enough, getting good at capturing complexity requires your creative hat to come on…or your sparkly creative shoes, depending on your vibe.

Written documentation or mockups aren’t enough in enterprise UX. You need to express the logic of the system, flow, industry, and versions/released in the right way as a matter of second nature. You also need to write words that others can understand and use to implement, train, and build off of. You chose the combined ways to express this logic, often written documents combined with visuals work very well.

UX workflow tips

  • Use flowcharts or visuals to describe abstract things – there’s really efficient ways to communicate things, if you’re talking about logic, flow, or dependencies, leverage a flow chart to do the heavy lifting for you
  • Write all the time – your memory probably sucks and product conversations are hard to follow sometimes as you’re zooming in and out of abstraction all the time – if you build a paper trail into the work it helps PLUS people collaborating with you will know what’s happening
  • Collaborative documentation – write stuff with your interdisciplinary friends and capture where your thinking has gone
  • QA your documents – get key people to look over your document to see if the “reading UX” of it works and it’s understandable

So there you have it, lots of ideas to make your design or building workflow jive well in the enterprise software and complex applications world.

We welcome you to take on these challenges with gusto and get excited about this interesting world of UX design, product and technology!

Innovation potential in enterprise at scale

Enterprise software is exciting! We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. The potential of innovation in the world of workplace software is insane and it’s already happening. The advantage we have, is that in the workplace there are some solid business cases which justify new technology. On top of that, employees are generally trained on software at work, so we can accelerate adoption and experiment with new technologies with a captive audience.

We see the future of screen-free interactions, tapping the power of AI, and offering fun and atmosphere in these tools as just some of the innovations we’re going to see in the near future.

Enterprise software examples

Show don’t tell, or so they say. The wonder of enterprise products is real. Seeing a small sample of the types of products out there gives us a glimpse into the ingenuity of some of these industries and the humans within them. The very existence of these software tools is kind of delightful.

We assembled a small list of some of the software we’ve come across in our travels (they are mentioned to give you more clarity on the types of things out there, not to promote anything).

Software type
Lab inventory management systems (LIMS)
Manage the samples as they go through their workflow in the lab
More on wikipedia
Benchling – used for R&D in biotechnology
Freezer management
Manage the resources and inventory in your lab freezers
Software focused on interpreting and dealing with vast biological datasets
More on wikipedia
Anduril – workflow framework for data analysis
Inventory management
Keeping track of the physical things in your business in a large database.
More on wikipedia
Point of sale
Manages transactions in the store setting
More on wikipedia
Human resources
Employee morale tracking software
Human resource information software (HRIS)
Human resources
Mega software that brings together HR systems into one management solution
More on wikipedia
Quality management system (QMS) software
Corporate general
Ensuring compliance
More on wikipedia
Project management software
Corporate general
Tools for planning, estimating, tracking budget and resource allocation
More on wikipedia
Tools that convert 3D models into flat images appropriate for video content
More on wikipedia
Renderman-Rendering pixar-like movies
Video editing
Tools that facilitate trimming, adding images, special effects to footage in order to create final content (video etc)
More on wikipedia
Descript – Audio, video editing and transcription
Electronic trading platform
Tools that allow you to trade stocks on the stock market and view your existing stocks
More on wikipedia
Game engine
Frameworks which allow videogames to be created
More on wikipedia
Precision OS – a training engine with simulations made for surgeons
Software repository (repo)
Managing, visualizing and pushing code
More on wikipedia
Data anonymization tools
Make your data so that it’s usable and interesting for analysis but you can’t identify individuals in the data
More on wikipedia

Wrapping up

Whether you’re entering the enterprise software world for the first time, or you’re brushing up and stepping your game up, hopefully these UX workflow tips for enterprise software inspire you and spark some exciting possibilities for your work life.

It’s a challenging world of UX, and gives us so much connection to our collaborative side, our analytical reasoning side, and our courage to take on challenges we have no clue how to solve at first. The difficulty around cracking design problems in this field is super satisfying and can force us to level up our design abilities in many different ways.

Bon chance, as we say in French! You got this, people.

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