The internal systems of many organizations have shocking user interfaces. This costs companies in productivity, training and even the customer experience.
Fortunately, we can fix this.
“How come I can download an app on my phone and instantly know how to use it, yet need training to use our content management system? Shouldn’t our system be intuitive?”
This was just one of the comments I heard in a recent stakeholder interview. People are fed up with inadequate internal systems. Many of those I interviewed had given up on the official software. Instead, they use tools like Dropbox, Google Docs and Evernote.
Further Reading on SmashingMag:
- Fight The System: Battling Bureaucracy
- How To Spark A UX Revolution
- Hold A Kickoff Meeting Before Diving Into The Design
- Why You Should Include Your Developer In The Design Process
The problem seems to exist across the board. I am hearing the same thing from employees across many companies and sectors. I am also hearing it about almost all types of internal systems, from ones for customer relationship management (CRM) to ones for procurement. They are all painful to use.
Frustration will only increase as millennials enter the workforce. These people are digital natives, and they expect a certain standard of software. They expect software to adapt to them, not the other way around.
The result of this frustration is that employees are abandoning these systems. People use email instead of a CRM and put documents in Dropbox rather than on the intranet. This leads to systems being out of date and, thus, irrelevant to the organization.
How have things gotten to this state? Why is enterprise software so bad?
One Size Does Not Fit All
I think technology is often oversold. “A content management system is the solution to content!” “An intranet is the answer to improving efficiency!” “A CRM system will manage the customer relationship!” But that is just not true.
Unfortunately, in the eyes of senior management, once a piece of software is purchased, the problem is solved. Job done, move on to the next challenge.
One size rarely fits all. Organizations rarely work in the same way, even within the same sector. Even if a law firm purchases an intranet designed for the legal sector, the system won’t necessarily work well out of the box for that firm.
People work in different ways. The functionality required by the secretary to the CEO will be different from the functionality required by someone in accounting or HR. Yet many enterprise systems do nothing to streamline the experience for different groups. (Image source: opensourceway)
Many of these systems could be tailored to the needs of individual organizations or employees, but they are not so out of the box. They need to be configured and optimized, which usually does not happen — or else the wrong system is purchased to begin with.
There must be a better way.
Starting With Users’ Needs
The procurement process for these systems too often begins with a list of desired features. This is the wrong starting point. We should approach internal software in the same way that we develop external applications: starting with users’ needs.
Regardless of whether you already have a system in place, identify your different user groups. Who will be using each system? Once you know that, shadow them for a while. Understand how they work. What do they do each day, and what system do they already use to get their work done?
Look for pain points in that system, and talk to them about where they get frustrated. Identify the information they need to do their job, and be aware of any clutter that gets in the way.
Finally, identify your users’ top tasks. Which tasks do your different user groups do again and again. These need to be super-accessible.
You might think that you now have enough information to buy a system. But just because something has the functionality you need does not mean it is easy to use. Before leaping for expensive software, design the user experience. We can do that with some simple prototyping.
Prototype Your Perfect System
Creating a prototype of how your ideal system would work does not need to be time-consuming or particularly expensive. Best of all, it could replace a long-winded and abstract specification of functions.
We can iterate on the prototype based on user feedback until it offers the optimal experience.
With that vision in place, you can compromise intelligently.
A working prototype is a good standard by which to measure different software — much better than a specification.
Could your existing system be set up to mirror the prototype? If it can’t exactly, then which areas would you have to compromise on? Based on your user testing, are these compromises acceptable?
If your existing system cannot replicate the key functionality of the prototype, look at alternatives. Talk to other vendors and show them your prototype. Ask whether their system can replicate it, and once again, decide on areas of compromise based on user feedback.
Do you see the difference here? The experience is designed around the user, not around what the software provides. Also, if you cannot find software that meets the needs of your users, consider building a bespoke system.
Buying software off the shelf makes no sense if no one will use it or if it provides no business value. (Image source: opensourceway)
I know what you’re thinking. This makes sense, but senior management won’t go for it. They won’t pay for a prototype or a bespoke system. Well, that depends on how you sell it.
Selling The Need For A User-Centric System
Convincing management to spend money on a prototype can be hard. It’s hard enough when a clever salesperson says that their software will solve all of the company’s problems — harder still if management has already paid for a fancy system. Nevertheless, solid business arguments can be made for this approach.
If your company has a system that is not fit for its purpose, you should be able to prove this. Collect data on how users interact with the system. Combine this with user testing and stakeholder interviews. This should be enough to establish a compelling case — at least compelling enough to justify some limited prototyping of an alternative approach.
Remember that you are not asking them to replace the system. You just want to prototype a potentially better solution and see whether the current software could be set up to match it. When managers see a better way, they will usually be open to change.
If the company does not already own a system, then your position is even stronger. Enterprise software is expensive, and so ensuring the right fit is important. Getting it wrong could mean hundreds or thousands of dollars wasted. A prototype will prove more effective than a specification at measuring the suitability of different products. It will also make it easier to compare software.
Of course, management could take the position that employees will just need to get used to what they have. This argument has some merit. Given time, users would adapt to even the most archaic of systems. But at what cost?
The Cost Of Failure
Poor user interfaces require more training and support. Both are a cost borne by the organization, not to mention the frustration it causes. Even more significant is the cost in lost productivity. Organizations are keen to maximize efficiency, and systems that are easy to use go a long way towards this.
Unfortunately, some managers seem to care little about internal processes. But they do care about customer satisfaction, which is becoming one of the most popular factors for organizations to measure. We now live in a world of consumers who are connected and have a voice through social media. That makes organizations sensitive to negative comments and experiences.
Internal systems weigh heavily on the performance of your employees. And they have a massive impact on the customer experience. These systems ensure timely responses; they help deliver the product; and they facilitate customer relationships. This is why internal systems are becoming the next big competitive advantage.