Don’t make me think
Why Most Enterprise Applications Are Pretty Terrible
“I apologize for such a long letter. I did not have time to write a short one.”
For better or worse, there are very few parts of our personal and professional lives that have remained entirely untouched by one digital application or another.
The fact that most of us begin the day from bed on our smartphone is probably the starkest sign that software has truly eaten the world.
While I am not a behavioral psychoanalyst by training, I firmly believe that the several short decades of the consumer internet’s existence have fundamentally altered our collective psyches in a permanent way.
We want what we want when we want it.
And if we can’t get it — whatever “it” may be — within less than half a dozen clicks/taps, our fists clench and our eyes roll into the back of our skulls.
Our blood can’t help but boil with frustration.
In the context of the consumer apps one may use on a daily basis (Spotify, Venmo, The Weather App, etc.), product strategists and UI/UX designers agonize not for weeks or months, but for years over every mechanical and visual detail of their applications.
They do this not because they are trying to think up additional features to implement.
Instead, they are searching for opportunities to make their product more user-friendly and eliminate cognitive load in their customers. They do this by determining which elements are non-material to the core purpose of the application — and then carefully stripping them away one by one.
To these tech pioneers, a frictionless product that serves a small handful of purposes masterfully well is far better than an over-engineered multitool that attempts to be all things to all people.
But what about our business and workplace applications?
What about the web-based and mobile technologies that allow us to manage our organizations’ operational workflows, oversee the status and performance of assets, store and analyze data at scale, and so much more?
The companies that build digital products to manage these functions may not be the household names that Facebook or Airbnb are, but these technologies are just as ubiquitous in the business setting as their consumer counterparts’ products are in our personal lives, if not more so.
That having been established, why is it that the digital tools falling under this category almost always appear to be infinitely more complicated than they need to be, despite the fact that their aggregate quantifiable importance to global commerce runs into the tens of trillions of dollars?
The reasons for this problem are many and varied, and certainly warrant articles of their own, if not entire textbooks.
But I argue that there is only one solution:
The future of effective enterprise application design lies in the consumerization of our business/management apps.
Any organization who’s success hinges on the creation, deployment, and adoption of digital applications (regardless of whether said apps are deployed internally or externally) must understand that to place additional cognitive burden on users through an overly complicated interface design, is to commit a cardinal sin.
One of life’s greatest oxymorons is that it’s actually pretty simple to create something that’s incredibly complicated, be it a scientific hypothesis, a work of art, or a business model.
What is truly difficult, and takes a tremendous amount of effort, patience, and analytical rigor, is taking a complicated structure and whittling it away until nothing but the truly valuable components remain.
In essence, this is what good product managers should be able to do.
But in organizations where product personnel at both the design and development levels do not have the autonomy to expand upon the product vision (which unfortunately is the case in most B2B organizations),
critical product decisions are often made through the lens of the next quarter’s earnings, not through the lens of “Will this make our customers’ lives simpler while sustaining our competitive advantage into the future?”
As a result, we end up with enterprise technologies that actively incite anxiety in the hearts of their users due to the overwhelming amounts of badly laid out data on each page, inconsistent navigation systems, poorly articulated breadcrumbs, and uncomfortable collaboration/communication mechanisms.
Darwinism has, I believe, already begun to take its natural course in the form of the millennial and Gen Z’s entries into the workforce (the former comprising the largest statistical employee cohort).
These generations have grown up with powerful and complicated, yet intuitive and user-friendly applications playing a very intimate part in their lives.
If your organization has a substantial number of employees aged 25 and under, a simple survey will reveal that many of them prefer the ease of Snapchat over any other tool when communicating with friends and loved ones.
Now this may seem like a trivial point, but the implications of this offer some critical insight into the deficiencies of modern enterprise apps.
Snapchat, for anyone that’s been left out of the loop, is a video-oriented social media platform that allows users to send photos or short videos to friends.
The kicker, from a usability standpoint, is that all of the app’s functionality is accessible to users in under 5 taps/swipes of the screen. This is no mean feat, considering that the app has been aggressively adding dozens of new features over the last several years.
Despite the additions, the product and design teams have managed to retain its interface’s intuitive integrity.
While Snapchat is only a single application, this trend of simplified interface design can be found in almost ever consumer app that can be found on the iOS and Android digital stores.
The takeaway is that these inbound (or are they already incumbent?) generations of tech-savvy workers have been conditioned to a different style of interface design than we have seen in the past.
They have been conditioned to clean-cut, simplistic, and beautiful dashboards/menus that do not hijack the conscious mind.
Many, if not most of the tasks and activities within Snapchat, can be achieved entirely subconsciously without needing to enlist the aid of higher level cognitive functions.
Users can interact with over a dozen of their friends in the course of a minute, and if asked, still have no idea where they had to click or what page they had to access in order to do so.
Whether we like it or not, this has become the new norm for digital interactive technology. Younger demographics, especially in knowledge-work roles, will simply not tolerate poorly planned enterprise tech any longer.
My philosophy is that the next generation of digital enterprise tools, as most innovations in history, will look nothing like their clunky precursors, and will come to resemble the Spotify’s and LinkedIn’s of the world:
Heavy computational back ends with clean and minimal user interfaces and dashboards.
The companies that lean into this trend and design every page, menu, button, and icon as if they were meant to be viewed and digested in a 0.25 second glance will be the enterprise winners of the future.
The organizations that fail to adapt to this new normal will inevitably see their users defect to the competitor that is truly customer-experience oriented.
Data analytics/marketing founder turned enterprise fintech product strategist.