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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 And sure, that completely predictable technology stack is ten years out-of-date.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?#section2

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#section3

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#section4

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#section5

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#section6

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#section7

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.

About the Author

Jordan Koschei

Jordan Koschei is the director of UX at Fusion Media, where he helps Fortune 500s get their digital acts together. When he isn’t designing experiences or writing snappy front-end code, he’s writing opinion pieces for The Industry, expounding on Twitter, or enjoying life in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley.

28 Reader Comments

  1. Great post, Jordan. While I have done and continue to do work for commercial clients, they are typically secondary to my primary work, which is contract-based work for local and federal government (civilian and military). Some of the work is more of a commercial nature, like public-facing portals and web apps, but the vast majority is of a public enterprise nature, with internal customers as you discuss. In my experience, these are the pros and cons for a designer or UX professional doing public enterprise work:

    Cons: Traditional dress code; formal culture; management-heavy organizational structures; too much decision-by-committee; burdensome processes; archaic and/or unsatisfactory technologies; limited support for UX research/testing; and a low bar for success, which leads to acceptance of sub-par products and lack of tolerance for time/effort required for truly great products.

    Pros: Complex challenges of every stripe; doing good; great compensation.

    Like all enterprise work, public enterprise UX work is ultimately something we need UX and design professionals involved in. There is LOTS of work and anyone who can bring design thinking into the public space is doing a valuable service. Yes, no t-shirts at the office, no foosball table, and most people are in their 40s-50s, but there is so much we have to offer these organizations and, believe me, they have a lot to put in our wallets in return for that valuable service.

  2. Chris,

    Really great pros/cons list. It sounds like working in the public sector magnifies many of the challenges and rewards of enterprise work – I can’t imagine working with that scale of bureaucracy, but you do have an opportunity to do a lot of good.

    I love seeing how many people in our industry have devoted themselves to bringing good design to less-visible places.

  3. It’s certainly true that the expectations of enterprise level companies are very different from smaller ones. We’re doing a large replatforming project at the moment, and it feels like the first project where the needs of the people who “do the doing” are being met; we’re starting to get the people who put things live on the site involved in discussions and sessions so they can feed back more regularly during the project about whether or not the tools are going to make their jobs easier or harder, so we can proactively make changes to the requirements to make everyone’s lives easier.

    I think it can also help to show the planners (the managers, etc.) how to accomplish tasks in a system. I’ve had times when managers have said they think someone’s taking too long to do something, and I’ve shown the managers how long the tools take to use. While we can’t expect them to get too close to the canvas, bringing them a little closer so they can see the detail and not just the big picture does make enterprise UX a lot easier to talk about.

    Thank you for a great article, Jordan. I’ll be sharing it with the management here!

  4. Thanks for writing about the less glamorous side of UX. I’ve been working on these types of projects for most of my career. I find working on these projects in-house, on the business side is more successful. Working as a consultant, I was never able to stay long enough to do real iterative work or become an integral part of the team. In-house, putting UX in the technology org makes it harder to get the attention of the business decision makers. There are certainly more challenges and things do move more slowly, but the reason I most enjoy this type of work is the challenge. Particularly the need to deeply understand the business behind the product. Figuring out how to design a simple interface for a complex process or financial model is like solving a multi-layered puzzle. If you don’t take the time to understand the business behind the product, you will not earn the trust of the decision makers and you will miss many opportunities to reduce the complexity of the UI. I’ll also add, it is very hard to find UX people with this type of experience.

  5. Karl – Showing the managers how difficult it is to use certain tools is an interesting strategy; I may use that in the future. The disconnect between the decision makers and the actual end users is a tough gap to bridge sometimes.

  6. Larry – I wish all organizations understood the importance of good UX so they’d give their internal teams a chance to do great work. As you said, it’s rare to have enough time as a contractor to do proper iteration. Makes it harder to collect realistic data on how a new tool is being used.

  7. Rob, that’s a really insightful article. This sentence particularly resonated with me: “Although one increasingly hears the language of UX used by IT vendors, it is quite clear that for many such outfits, ‘user experience’ equates to little more than ‘user interface design’.”

  8. As a content strategist, I love working with enterprise clients. UX for back-office software, apps, and let’s not forget intranets and reporting processes. This is the place where we can reduce frustration and empower people in all sorts of ways.

  9. I work for just such an organization. You are spot on friend. Every bit of advice here has come across my teams place at one time or another. It has been a challenge, but we’re really starting to gain ground now.

  10. Really nice article Jordan. I design intranets and enterprise webapps for 4 years now, and I have applied some of the ideas / concepts you present here. Its a struggle to make the UX evolve on such enterprises, specially if they adopt the mentality “if it works, there is no point in changing”. And sometimes the lack of adequate guidelines and/or developing tools doesn’t help either. It’s refreshing to see an article like yours.

    It would be really cool adopting those concepts in the Government – they are the ones who would benefit more from evolving their UX.

  11. Jordan – I had all you said in my mind but not organized like this. Thank you for give me a answer for the designers that ask me:
    “Why you work in a boring company?”
    It is because they need.
    Great article.

  12. Clare, Lucas, Heber, and Giu – It’s good to hear from others who’ve worked with enterprise clients. Each project is so different that it’s hard to distill enterprise UX into a widely-applicable set of rules. I’m glad the article lines up with your own experiences.

  13. Fantastic article. I’ve worked on a UX team at a Fortune 100 company for almost three years now, and it’s been the most rewarding part of my career as a designer. I’m constantly challenged to solve highly complex design problems, and it’s that complexity, coupled with the need to educate as I design, that makes this work so rewarding.

  14. I’ve been designing enterprise applications for several years now and even though my job might not be ‘cool’ enough for other designers, I just love it. There is no better job for someone who enjoys solving problems and transforming organizations. The challenges just keep on coming. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one advocating for this type of design work. Great article!

  15. One good example is Yammer. My brother works for an “enterprise” sized company, and they use Yammer as a way to facilitate communication for sales (leads and lead management is handled by a separate app, but they still need to internally communicate about sales and deals going on, etc.). He was discussing some of the things he doesn’t like about Yammer. For example, there’s too much user-generated content that’s too hard to search and sort through, and no way to rank things by importance (e.g., a management tier of content, user junk, etc.). I think a simple UX overhaul of their app would address most of his issues, since the objects created (as he described them) already store enough data; it’s just not presented in a succinct way. I’m actually building a lead management software for real estate agents to manage their sales leads. I will say, UX has been the toughest part, despite data modelling being so time-consuming.

  16. Good article. I’m always amused by the common assumption that designing software for enterprises / internal corporate use, etc. is “boring.” You did a nice job of briefly explaining how this kind of design work can be very rewarding to a designer more interested in solving complex challenges, rather than just “pushing pixels” — or solving the same old problems over and over in commercial apps or web sites, e.g. ecommerce purchase flow or social interactions online.

    In my mind, this kind of design-for-the-enterprise is a subset of a larger UX field: designing for professional users. I consider myself fortunate in that I’ve identified that as a much more interesting space than commercial or consumer design. The needs of people doing a job are vastly different than those of shoppers, browsers, gamers, or the merely curious. The market for professional apps is enormous and the impact good (or bad) design can have is incalculable.

    Yet, 90% of the typical UX advice, best practices, articles, conference talks, etc. is geared toward the consumer end of the spectrum, often completely ignoring that designing for pro’s requires a different approach and a different mindset for the designer.

  17. Thanks @Jordan for the great Post ! It was new Insight to me for the enterprise clients

    Currently am working as a Business Analyst for the past 2 years after my MBA(Marketing& IT ).But I got the new offer to work as a UX Analyst in Top Companies.

    I would like to know more about this field and career path.

    Couple of friends advising me why you narrowing down your career opportunity towards UX Role instead of focusing on BA.( Probably because of my MBA )

    Kindly Advice

    Looking forward
    Appreciate your time & Advance Merry Christmas


  18. Great article (and comments from everyone else) – just what I need during moments of when I ask myself why on earth did I ditch consumer-facing work and subject myself to all the cons of enterprise-world as Chris described so eloquently. I stumbled across this article while looking for books discussing UX for Enterprise Software – anyone know of any good books on this specific topic? If not, who’s up for writing one together?

  19. Thanks for writing this up, Jordan! This was an encouraging read for me as I am going through the growing pains of practicing UX in the enterprise world too. (Previously, I had been in the agency environment.) @Yeevon, Haven’t come across any books yet, but I’d be glad to share my two cents in a book if we could pull together some authors. =)

    This was a good read too:
    (My organization is at the “Serious UX Investment” stage.)

  20. I’ve worked for “the enterprise” my entire career, and within IT. Intranets, collaboration, SharePoint. There are enough subpar portals, applications, login screens, Word documents, SharePoint sites, emails (Help Desk emails are the w.o.r.s.t.) to keep designers busy for decades. If you’re up for the challenge, no matter what you touch can be improved. And you don’t even need to be a quote-unquote ux designer. You just have to recognize a need to make it better.
    Most of the time a few tweaks can make a huge difference – better spacing, eliminating ALL use of Times New Roman…simple changes. That’s because, like Jordan points out, these materials weren’t created to be pretty, or even pleasant. They were created to fill a need and get a job done. Also, the majority of materials we run across these days were created before apps and design were in the front of our daily minds. That’s right – some departments and teams are using the same documents that were created 5-10-15 years ago. No one cared. Just get it done.
    Let’s make it better.

  21. Hi Jordan, well written article and every bit you shared is a real-time experience for me. I work for such an organization where UX is considered as just beautifying the UI.

    It’s time to think about the end user and from the end user’s perspective.

  22. Great post Jordan, certainly is a different kettle of fish working with enterprise clients as opposed to SMB’s. It’s been almost a year since you wrote this, so I was wondering what tools your team typically uses for behavioral insights to help support ux design decisions? Our partners tool (Decibel Insight) is enterprise led; and we use this for our enterprise clients with a great degree of success. There are of course others out there, so interested to learn what you think of them?

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