Tunnel (verb): To pass through a potential barrier.
I grew up in an area in Los Angeles where the Santa Monica Mountains separate the city from the ocean. Through the hills and canyons, a series of tunnels provides passage to the beautiful beaches. These tunnels provide access and availability to one of California’s great natural wonders. In much the same way, design provides access and availability to the productivity and promise of software innovation today.
How software is designed influences not only how productively we get things done, but also how we think and feel about it. For those of us who live and breathe enterprise software, questions about design are no longer reserved for the consumer software that we use every day. Today, design is essential to all software. Period. Software that you can’t use is by definition useless, regardless of its technology or innovation promise. Design is the tunnel through the mountain of data and the inherent complexity that we continually face in today’s information age.
When it comes to the implications of design in the enterprise, Holger Mueller, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research, is one of the industry’s most perceptive observers. This is why I was thrilled to get his thoughts on the past, current, and future of design. What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.
Can you give me your thoughts on how design has become so important and where the industry is going?
There are a number of factors at work. First, we’ve been talking about the consumerization of IT for a long time. People are used to consumer applications, which revise their UX much faster than traditional enterprise applications.
There’s something which I call UI debt, where you’re not doing all the things you need to do. That UI debt accumulates much, much faster than ever before for enterprise software, and then users say the software feels old but can’t quite articulate why.
Then you realize, “Oh, you’re comparing what we do to Facebook, Instagram, and Google.” Those companies are always doing little things around the edges of their UI, giving a little more transparency here, a little more depth there. On the enterprise software side, we always said, well, one size basically fits all.
Personally, I think this one-size-fits-all mentality needs to be overcome because you have so many different personas, especially when we’re talking about HR software. The average employee touches the HR system less than a dozen times a year, whereas an HR manager or a recruiter has a completely different set of needs. I think a tiered HR interface—for the once-a-month user, the daily user, the people manager who needs to swap shifts all the time—that’s where I would hope enterprise design is going.
And finally, no UI is the new UI. Voice is a much faster way to get things done—which leads to the overall point of the system. But, right now we’re sort of in an in-between place where you can’t radically say “I don’t need a traditional UI anymore,” because design still matters for a lot of people. Some vendors in the space are gambling on voice and innovate on the mobile side first and don’t care so much about their desktop experience, because you typically can’t do voice on a desktop.
The way we build software has transformed. Now, ratios on development to design are starting to take hold and we’re going through a different process led by user-centric design and design thinking. What are your thoughts on the role of design thinking in the overall process?
Design thinking is very important, but there is this massive shortcoming caused by ignoring the digital data which consumers are producing already. So my first initiative on UI would be to scan the data continually and build a platform based more on what user types and individual users are doing and seeing. This would bring us so much further out than any design I can do.
Why? Because in traditional design you have to rely on the process that the user can describe for their workers. Why would I even ask them to describe what the workers should do when I can see what their work has been in my system? It should be the other way around; they show me instead of tell me.
The cloud should be saying: “Hey Holger, it’s time for you to finish your timesheet. When it comes to delegating tasks, you’re in the last third compared to other managers like you—do you want me to schedule a half-hour with your staff on Friday so you can delegate tasks?” That’s how an intelligent enterprise system should be looking, could be looking, right now.
Yes, this digital exhaust can shape what you do in the future and can simplify the user experience tremendously. Can you talk a little bit about the digital canvas concept and how it can lead to a better user-centered design UX?
Yes, my colleague Alan Lepofsky has done a lot of work on digital canvases and I know you guys have hosted a webinar with him on the subject. For me, from an enterprise perspective, it’s really about breaking down the traditional silos. The traditional enterprise UI guy has siloed himself, herself, into finance, HR, manufacturing, CRM, and would only optimize that world. The reality is, especially for HR, it’s important to note that that the user is doing other things—people spend most of their time in email or meetings or presentations.
So how do I get a digital workplace, which is not just the canvas, but are all my systems operating together in sync? To bring the whole workplace together in one friction-free place, that’s what the digital canvas is for me.
With everything going on, the speed of business today, businesses definitely want to be more productive. You want to leverage what’s going on with AI and ML in a nice consistent user experience that goes from good to great. How do you stitch all of these technologies and canvases together so that the user still wins?
Employees are always looking for something which moves them faster. It comes back to: Give the people the productivity tools they need and bring all that content together from a single sign-on perspective. But in the meantime, one of my architectural recommendations is that you need to make the HR professionals, executives, and company comfortable with big data because that’s the first major breakthrough we have in the 21st century.
Get familiar with big data. Build the platform around that. Typically we start at the CEO dashboards at the top because they’re great for demos and the CEOs make the decisions, but really the focus has to be on making people leaders more productive and then, very importantly, empower them to glean insights from the data themselves.
I’m hoping for a canvas that can consume all kinds of data that comes from anywhere and uses machine learning to merge things into a useful picture.
This is a big risk and change for enterprise software because you may never see the transaction application anymore. It’s a good thing from the UI perspective because you don’t have to do the hard UIs anymore but the downside, the risk, is if you’re not being seen, usually your share of wallet drops. But, it’s a very powerful concept because all this context switching, logging in, logging out, is a tremendous cost and slow down to users and for the enterprise.
How would you finish this sentence? “The enterprise applications of the future, as far as design goes . . . “
Must be an order of magnitude better than what they are today because of the risk of being disrupted. There needs to a revolutionary integration by breaking down the silos, using more inputs, using more big data and machine learning.
Couldn’t agree more. Finally, what’s one word that describes the enterprise application experience of the future?