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Illustration by Joe Alterio

UX for the Enterprise

Imagine this scenario. You’re hired to design a product that has a guaranteed audience of 50,000 users, right out of the gate. Your clients have a dedicated support staff with a completely predictable technology stack. Best of all, your work directly improves the quality of your users’ lives.

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That’s enterprise UX.

Yes, those 50,000 people use your software because they don’t have a choice. And sure, that completely predictable technology stack is ten years out-of-date. But, despite its quirks, doing UX work for enterprise clients is an opportunity to spread good design to the industries that need it most.

Enterprise UX is a catch-all term for work done for internal tools—software that’s used by employees, not consumers. Examples include:

  • HR portals
  • Inventory tracking apps
  • Content management systems
  • Intranet sites
  • Proprietary enterprise software

Since switching from working with smaller clients to tackling the problems of the Fortune 500, I’ve fielded a lot of questions from designers mystified by my decision. Why choose to specialize in enterprise design when you could do more interesting work in leaner, more agile, t-shirt-friendly companies? Isn’t big business antithetical to design culture?

The answer is: yes, often. Working with enterprise clients can be an exercise in frustration, filled with endless meetings and labyrinthine bureaucracy. It can also be immensely rewarding, with unique challenges and creatively satisfying work. As designers, we live to solve problems, and few problems are larger than those lurking in the inner depths of a global organization. After all, Fortune 500s tend to have a “just get it done” attitude toward internal tools, resulting in user experiences that aren’t well designed or tested. By giving those tools the same attention to experience that you give consumer-facing products, you can improve the lives of your users and support the organization’s values and brand.

Why bother with enterprise work?

Enterprise UX is often about solving ancillary problems by creating tools that facilitate an organization’s primary goals. These problems are rarely as compelling or visible as the goals they support, but they’re just as necessary to solve. A company might build the best-designed cars in the world, but it won’t matter if its quality-assurance process is hobbled by unusable software. Good design enables enterprises to do the work they were founded to do.

Enterprise employees are also consumers, and they’ve come to expect consumer-level design in all the tools they use. Why shouldn’t a company’s inventory software or HR portal be as polished as Evernote, Pinterest, or Instagram? When a consumer app is poorly designed, the user can delete it. When an enterprise app is poorly designed, its users are stuck with it.

The stakes can be enormously high. The sheer scale of enterprise clients magnifies the effects of good and bad design alike. Small inefficiencies in large organizations result in extra costs that are passed on to the end user in time spent, money lost, and frustration increased. Likewise, when an enterprise prioritizes user experience for its internal tools, it becomes a more effective organization; a recently released business index shows that design-driven companies outperformed the S&P average by 228% over the last ten years.

A perfect example of the business value of enterprise UX is found in the article, “Calculating ROI on UX & Usability Projects”:

…if you optimize the UX on a series of screens so that what was once a 5 minute task is now a 2.5 minute task, then you’ve increased a person’s productivity by 100%. That’s huge. HUGE. If the company has 100 phone agents who have an average salary of $40,000 + benefits (~$8,000) (+ an unknown amount for overhead), you could either release or retask those agents on other activities with a savings of $2,400,000/year. (half of 100 agents x $48,000).

It’s simplified, but the point is dead-on. A company with 100 phone agents could result in millions of dollars of savings. Imagine the impact on a company with thousands of employees? Or tens of thousands?

We have an opportunity to set the tone in some of the largest industries on the planet. Many big organizations have been defined by engineering and business thinking, with any design being either incidental or unintentional. Now, as those companies wake up to the value of solid design, they have to contend with the years of cruft that have obscured their tools and processes. Design is essential to shedding the excess and building better, leaner, and more human organizations.

Working on enterprise projects

There’s no such thing as an average enterprise UX project. The variety of projects within even a single company can be dizzying. I’ve worked on sites with a million visitors in the first week, and apps that fewer than 12 people use in a year.

Projects that would be iterative in the consumer space may be a one-off in the enterprise space, so it’s crucial to get things right the first time around. Further, due to cost, culture, and the immense hassle of rolling out updates to tens of thousands of employees, enterprise clients are often bogged down with wildly out-of-date solutions. We’ve heard of huge companies begging Microsoft to extend the lifespan of Windows XP; that’s the rule, not the exception.

Designing internal tools for a Fortune 500 company requires adaptation, but it isn’t a seismic shift from the world of consumer-facing design. Though a set of universal rules governing enterprise UX might not exist, there are a few principles I wish I’d known when transitioning from working with smaller clients.

Design for the end user, not the client

As with many design jobs, the end users of your software probably aren’t the same people who commissioned it.

In large organizations, the divide between the user and the client can be vast. The director of operations might commission an inventory app for warehouse personnel, or someone from IT might commission a reporting tool for the sales team. In an enterprise-scale bureaucracy, the clients in charge of UX projects are often in higher-level management roles. And while they typically have an invaluable grasp of the big picture, they may not completely realize the everyday needs of the people who will use the software.

Conduct your stakeholder interviews to understand and agree on your client’s business goals, but don’t forget to gather user and empirical data too. Fortunately, that type of research is easier to do in an enterprise setting than in the consumer space. Corporations like to quantify things, so data on productivity and software use may already exist. And, unlike consumers who need an incentive to fill out a survey or participate in an usability study, enterprise users have an inherent investment in the end product—setting aside some time to answer your questions is part of their job.

A successful enterprise UX project considers the users’ needs, the clients’ goals, and the organization’s priorities. The best user experience sits at the intersection of these concerns.

Be an educator and advocate, but above all, be flexible

Being a designer is as much a consultative role as a practical one; to justify our design decisions, we need to explain to clients our guiding principles and teach them the basics of good user experience. Otherwise, we’re nothing more than pixel-pushers.

Most enterprise clients have their own procurement procedures and project management techniques that don’t jive with a healthy UX workflow. Designers often find themselves needing to shoehorn their process into an existing structure, an exercise which can be frustrating if not approached properly.

I was recently involved in redesigning a section of a large corporation’s website. My team was responsible for handling the visual design—the content was set, and a development partner had already been hired.

Ordinarily, we prefer to have plenty of overlap between the design and development phases, to ensure that the live site matches the intentions of the design. However, the tight deadline and the client’s existing workflow made this impossible. Instead, we handed off the final mock-ups to the developers and hoped that everything was implemented without a hitch.

We didn’t see the site again until a week before launch. Predictably, the soon-to-be-live site had numerous inconsistencies. Issues that would have been obvious with a glance from a designer—incorrect fonts, uneven margins, wrong colors—were left until the last minute to fix. The process provided ample room for the developers to do quality control (remember that ancient tech stack?), but not the designers.

We wrote a list of crucial changes, ordered by priority, to bring the site in line with our design and the client’s goals. Many items were fixed before launch, and the client fast-tracked a second iteration to fix the rest. But none of those design issues would have launched in the first place had we insisted on more interaction between the designers and developers. Some good did come out of this challenge: we recommended the client reevaluate their design/development workflow requirements, explaining why the two processes needed to overlap. We also examined our own workflow to figure out how to make it more accommodating to the peculiarities of enterprise work—adding a postmortem phase, for instance, enables us to give feedback to a third-party developer while maintaining a tight timeline. If we were asking our clients to be flexible, we needed to be flexible too. Sure enough, the client offered us a greater opportunity to set the terms of the process on the next project.

Needing to adapt to a new set of restrictions is an opportunity, not a hindrance. One of the most valuable things a designer can offer a large organization is insight into the design process and its importance. Design education and advocacy can extend beyond a single project, giving the client an understanding of how to better accommodate design thinking within the organization.

Learn the culture, speak the language

Designing internal tools for an organization requires an understanding of that organization’s culture, from the basic mindset to the quirks that make it unique.

Corporate clients are often forced into short-term thinking, which can make it difficult to push longer-term design goals. When dealing with enterprise clients, remember their priorities: meeting a quota by the end of the quarter, exhausting a budget so they can secure the same amount next year, or improving a metric to keep the boss happy. Corporate clients are less concerned with design trends or UX best practices—they just want something that works for them. It’s best to frame design decisions around the client’s goals to sell them on your thinking.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. It isn’t always obvious what the client cares about. Plenty of organizations pay lip service to values that haven’t really permeated the culture, making it hard to know what to aim for in the design process. It’s amazing how many enterprises describe themselves as “design-focused” or “innovation-driven” without anyone below the C-suite knowing what those terms mean.

So how do we figure out what an enterprise client is really about?

It takes some time, but one of the best ways is to pay attention to the language your clients use. Different organizations have different vocabularies, which reveal the way they think. You’ll likely encounter jargon, but your job is to listen—and help your clients translate that language into actionable goals. Do employees talk about “circling back” or “talking about this offline”? Structured communication may be important to that company. How about “value-add” or “low-hanging fruit”? Quick wins and return-on-investment are probably cornerstones of that organization’s culture.

No client wants to learn design lingo just to be able to communicate with you, and corporate clients in particular are busy with a million other things. Learn their language so they don’t have to learn yours.

Go ahead

We designers live to solve problems, and enterprise organizations provide fertile ground. They present a different set of constraints than startups and smaller clients, and while some designers balk at the idea of their work being constricted by a bureaucracy, others remember that the best design flourishes within well-defined boundaries.

Working on enterprise projects is something every UX designer should try. Who knows? You may just like it enough to stay.

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