When it comes to developing enterprise applications, organizations are increasingly realizing that user experience is as important as functionality. In response, vendors are taking a more agile approach to building those apps in order to better meet users' needs.
Users for many years have viewed enterprise applications through the " green screen." Even now the typical business app rarely wins kudos for approachability and intuitive appeal, with functionality trumping user interface (UI) design and the overall user experience (UX).
The upshot, in some cases, is slow adoption among users and a steep investment in training to get everyone up to speed. Plus, of course, slow or limited adoption impacts the anticipated return on investment for a given application.
To combat this, some enterprise applications are beginning to incorporate social, consumer-inspired interfaces. Some vendors borrow heavily from Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and other mainstays of consumer culture. The idea: Put a familiar, easy-to-use front end on a system and users will respond favorably.
That approach attracted Rana Blair, principal at ECOM Engineering. The Sacramento-based electrical and telecom engineering firm needed a better way to coordinate project teams and tapped Kona, a cloud-based collaboration and productivity tool. Deltek, an enterprise software provider focusing on professional services firms and government contractors, combined elements of social media and project-oriented collaboration in developing Kona.
"Our reasoning for aiming at a 'consumer' feeling design for a work application is all about getting user adoption inside the business," says Jeff Eckerle, who co-founded the in-house Kona startup within Deltek.
Kona's ease of use intrigued Blair. "I don't take tutorials or review feature sets," she says. "I'm of the mind that, if I can't use it right away, then no one else will."
Industry executives contend that consumerized enterprise products go beyond simply tacking a social media feature on a business app, arguing that attention to UI and UX improves user uptake and cuts training costs. At this early stage, however, the hard numbers to back up this assertion are lacking.
Firms Go Social to Improve Ease of Use, Adoption
ECOM Engineering juggles multiple projects as it pursues a mix of client work in fields ranging from electrical engineering design to audio/visual systems. The company had relied on email as a collaboration mechanism. It also tried different project management and collaboration software products.
Blair, who handles IT among other functions at ECOM Engineering, says she used a number of tools in the past, including social media platforms such as Basecamp Web-based project management software, Google groups, Ning.com and Facebook.
"I had no success in getting adoption with the groups I manage," Blair recalls. "Kona is the first tool that people have actually latched on to in even the most basic ways. This is important-not everyone has a native understanding of how applications work or a natural inclination to click until they find a way."
Kona provides "spaces" for group conversations, A a la Facebook "Wall," but does so within the milieu of a particular project and its associated calendar events and tasks.
Blair has pushed Kona to at least a half dozen work as well as personal groups, and the adoption rate is high. The software, she says, catalogs and keeps track of myriad activities and reduces the company's dependence on the email inbox as an information archive to near zero.
One difficulty: Blair hasn't been able to find other business applications that provide a similar user experience. "Nothing compares to the ease of use and adoption rate," she says. "Rather than trying to mimic Kona's interface and experience, I'm trying to pull it into my intranet solution and use it where it's most appropriate."
Social Gives Razorfish Real-Time Marketing Capabilities
That suite, which includes analytics and social marketing software, includes a revamped user interface that bears a resemblance to Pinterest. The interface consists of a feed of images-new ad concepts, for example-that marketing team members can annotate and comment on.
"We have been pretty amazed with the Pinterest interface," says Ray Velez, global CTO at Razorfish. "One of its goals, among many, is to help harness a way for everyone in the marketing organization to be able to contribute to real-time marketing and real-time conversations with clients."
Velez cites the Oreo "dunk in the dark" Super Bowl ad as an example of the type of rapid collaboration and real-time marketing Adobe Marketing Cloud and its Pinterest-like interface can facilitate. The ad was devised amid the game's 34-minute blackout and launched on Twitter.
The Adobe Marketing Cloud interface's accessibility also encourages engagement across all levels of an organization, Velez said. People working together on a marketing project would have less of a need to log into a content management system and navigate to the appropriate asset bucket. With the Pinterest-type interface, he says, they would just see the content as it flows past on the feed. That interface would suit such needs as collaboration or workflow and approvals, he adds.
Under its Adobe partnership, Razorfish will integrate its own digital marketing technology software, Fluent, with Adobe Marketing Cloud. Fluent lets marketers create and manage multi-channel digital campaigns.
New Enterprise Software Model, New Application Development Model
Software makers adopting consumer and social interfaces are retooling their development strategies. The consumer approach marks a departure from previous design and development methods.
At Kona, Eckerle and co-founder Scott DeFusco had worked together on enterprise resource planning (ERP) software before turning their attention to the social collaboration product.
As Eckerle puts it, "we've taken a very different approach toward building a new product from scratch." For one, the Kona project has dedicated personnel for user research and UI/UX-roles missing on previous development products, he says.
Rob Stroud, vice president for service and portfolio management at CA Technologies, says the company spends a lot of development time these days on look and feel, the effective use of color and other user experience considerations.
Recent CA products reflect this thinking, he says. In February, for example, CA debuted Nimsoft Service Desk 7, an IT service management (ITSM) tool that incorporates elements of social media such as feeds and status updates.
The idea is to encourage end users to use the ITSM tool to request services or seek help with IT-related problems. "Making it simple and intuitive is a higher priority than functionality now," Stroud says.
How 'Lean UX' Can Improve Application Development
Functionality can take the back seat in light of incremental development. Here, organizations frequently release new software features instead of dumping a soup-to-nuts feature set on users all at once. Stroud suggests that this development tack lets software vendors focus on UI/UX, since they "don't have to add big chunks of capabilities at one time."
In another shift, vendors such as CA have increased the frequency of end-user validation, since user testing is central to tuning the user experience. With products such as Nimsoft Service Desk 7, CA conducts end user validation at the end of each sprint, according to Stroud. That works out to testing every 30 days or so, as opposed to the previous schedule of every 90 to 120 days.
The overall thrust is to make software that reduces the need for training.
"That's our fundamental objective now," Stroud says. "There's always going to be training involved...but we're really looking to reduce the level of education and training required by the consumer of the technology, so that they're immediately able to do the task and add value in their role."
John Moore has written on business and technology topics for more than 20 years. His areas of focus include mobile app development, health IT, cloud computing, government IT and distribution channels. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.
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This story, "Giving Enterprise Software a Social Makeover Attracts Users" was originally published by CIO.