Advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (A.I.) and natural language processing have pushed the idea of “interfaces” far beyond the traditional boundaries of point, click, swipe and touch. Across industries, designers and developers are creating a number of new pathways for users to follow as they access data and kick off tasks through their mobile devices, laptops and desktops.
That’s what’s known as “consumerization.” While it’s not a new concept, it’s gained enough momentum that even enterprise customers—some might say especially enterprise customers—are prioritizing the implementation of user interfaces that offer a consumer-like feel.
“We’re at the point where we really need to rethink the experience of enterprise software and start delivering this more consumer-like experience,” said Emily He, senior vice president of marketing for Oracle HCM.
Whether they’re working for a multinational or a startup, in the consumer world or the business market, many user interface and experience designers believe usability has risen in importance. That rising tide, however, hasn’t come in the form of a tsunami.
“I think it’s just a natural evolution,” said John Hilton, vice president of sales for Topia, which provides solutions for organizations that relocate employees around the world. “Even before this current cycle, where everyone’s talking about artificial intelligence and machine learning, we already had a lot going on. It’s just now there are buzzwords that hit the mainstream that everybody’s picked up on.”
Simple to Use, Harder to Build
The new features being built into UI and UX aren’t bleeding edge-technology—at least not to users. To many people, the idea of speaking their instructions to a system (or texting) isn’t particularly new. Apple’s Siri first appeared in 2010; Amazon’s Alexa followed in 2014; but text messaging began taking hold long before either of those two platforms, in the early 1990s. As these tools became more sophisticated, more users adopted them; and as more users adopted them, more employees pressured their companies to integrate them into their workflows.
In response, enterprise software companies have not only simplified how users access their products, they’ve begun adding new avenues of access. SAP and Oracle, for example, have added both voice assistants and SMS connections to their products. But while such features make life simpler for end-users, they require a lot of sophistication under the hood. Both spoken and texted commands usually require AI and NLP to translate words into the appropriate technology action.
As an example, one enterprise IT director, who asked not to be identified because she isn’t a company spokesperson, described implementing a system where users could use Alexa- or Siri-like commands to retrieve information that not long ago would have required several requests from several systems. If users want to review a vendor’s complete record, for example, they simply tell the system to “show me everything we have on X” to see files from around the organization.
Syncing Up Enterprise Thought and Action
Such approaches align more closely with how people actually think, observes Oracle’s He. “When users ask a question, they’re not thinking in silos,” she said. “They’re not thinking, ‘okay, let me ask an HR question about my vacation, then a finance question about my expense reports and then, if they’re a salesperson, which accounts should I go after today.’ They’re just asking all these questions at once.”
To accommodate such behavior, designers need to think more about “storytelling” and less about “interfacing,” said Arnaud Grunwald, CEO of Hyphen, a product that facilitates conversations between employees, managers and corporate leaders. “The way you navigate through the platform or tool needs to be like unfolding a story.”
That’s not as touchy-feely as it sounds. In Grunwald’s mind, designers should start with a high-level overview of a product’s functionality, then think through “where users are going to go naturally.” New ways of interacting with the system require designers to do more than plot click-paths, Grunwald said. Verbal paths and messaging paths must be plotted, as well.
Accomplishing that properly requires more than UI or UX skills. Designers must understand business processes well enough to determine how they’ll be executed—what can be done by the system and what must be done by users. From the user’s point of view, “when I say I want something to be done, I expect it to be done,” said He. “I don’t care how many steps you need to take.”
Some tech leaders say this represents a new approach to enterprise software design. Delivering simplicity, He notes, is perhaps the biggest challenge designers and developers can take on. It’s also an increasingly important paradigm in the enterprise market.
“We’re in the process of completely re-imagining the experience through which users will engage with our software,” He said. “We’re thinking through how we can deliver these decision processes in a seamless way, so they can happen in the background, and how we can connect data directly to the user experience so we can give them insights and data they otherwise wouldn’t have.”