Co.Design

4 Ways To Build Business Software Users Actually Love

There’s an untapped opportunity to design software environments that are beautiful, thoughtful, and humane. Here’s how one company is doing it.

Over the last 10 years, great design has become an essential for consumer software success. If it’s not easy and enjoyable to use, forget about it. But despite how much time people spend interacting with technology at work—McKinsey found that email alone takes up nearly a third of people’s time—not to mention the $297 billion now spent annually on such technology, design in business software has not kept pace.

"Business software" conjures images of faceless IT departments in gray buildings, but this is really about software for people, when they’re at work. For those of us who look at a computer screen all day, badly designed software isn’t just time-wasting; it’s soul-sucking. We all deserve great design, not just when we go home, but from 9 to 5, or from 10 to 10. There’s an untapped opportunity to build software environments that are beautiful, thoughtful, and humane.

The financial opportunity is huge as well, as companies like Dropbox, Box, and Github are already demonstrating. Thanks to software-as-a-service delivery and the ongoing "consumerization of IT," it’s increasingly end users, not CIOs, who decide what tools they want to use at work. Before, slick marketing and sales teams could convince an IT department to choose their mediocre products — hey, it works, right? But now that users are empowered to try a few products and then choose the one they prefer, that old guard is being disrupted. In short, the incumbent enterprise vendors are building software people tolerate. The future players are building software people love.

But building business software people love is no small feat. At Asana, where this is our design team’s day-to-day challenge and purpose, we’ve learned the hard way that getting it right requires overcoming four core design tensions. The easy way out of each of these tensions is to compromise and find something that only half succeeds at each goal. But great business software—the kind people love—will find a way to transcend the design-tension contradictions and achieve both goals at the same time.

1. Power vs. and Simplicity

If you’re Tim Van Damme and you’re designing Instagram, you may purposefully want very few features. Keep it simple and beautiful—it’s not Photoshop or Carefullydeliberatedgram. But people aren’t using Instagram for eight consecutive hours or relying on it to get work done.

In contrast, business software needs to be powerful; users need to do sophisticated things. This is why software like Google Docs may start simple but eventually adds word count, table of contents, and all the other features you need if you actually want to do real word processing.

In the collaboration software world, some vendors who are light on features have tried to sell featurelessness as a good thing—which sounds great, until you want to do something that seems simple, like ask your project management tool to show you all the deadlines that are past due for each of the people who report to you.

The artful balance is in keeping the interface simple while enabling powerful functionality. As HCI pioneer Alan Kay put it, "Simple things should be simple, and complex things should be possible." One place this came up for us at Asana is putting tasks in multiple projects. This is a really powerful feature when you need it: For example, you can put the same task in both the Bugs project and the iPhone App project, without having to repeat the metadata and manually keep the conversations in sync. But when you didn’t need it, the feature was just cluttering the UI. In our recent redesign, we came up with a nice solution:

By default, a task just shows the single project that it’s in.
Click the pencil to edit.
The pencil turns into a plus sign while in edit mode.

This design nicely satisfies the principle "if the user isn’t using a feature, don’t make them pay for it." The task UI for the normal one-project case is clean and clear, but the advanced functionality is readily available.

2. Efficiency vs. and Emotion

Research confirms what we all know: Knowledge work is stressful. How can we help alleviate that stress by creating productivity software that feels warm, engaging, and inviting? Most business software inspires feelings somewhere between apathy and dread. So how do we create emotional connections not only between our software and its users but also among teammates—to help them "feel like a team"—without sacrificing streamlined efficiency?

At Asana, we went after this very directly with a feature called Hearts, a way of expressing affirmation for a colleague’s idea, comment, or accomplishment. It has both an emotional benefit and an efficiency benefit. Emotionally, it helps users express gratitude in just one click, increasingly important as technology limits our face-to-face interaction with colleagues. But it’s also really useful. For example, it allows teammates to vote on which ideas they like best, so it’s easier to surface the best ones.

3. Power Users vs. and Casual Logins

Great work software must meet the needs of everyone, from "power users" and dedicated project managers to people on the peripheries of projects or still just getting used to basic work technologies like the company email. How do you give power users a high-end command center while giving normal users something usable and pleasant? How do you empower everyone to work at the rate that they think, as unique to each worker as snowflakes on a winter day?

One time-tested tactic for this is keyboard shortcuts. Keyboard shortcuts can keep important functionality close at hand (no pun intended ;-) for power users, even if you need to tuck the feature a few clicks away in the GUI to keep it simple for novice users.

Tooltips are a great place to introduce keyboard shortcuts, because they don’t take screen real estate until the user tries to access the feature. Asana uses Tab as a modifier because most of the Ctrl/Command/Alt key chords are already reserved in browsers.

Once the exclusive province of desktop apps, more and more web products support keyboard shortcuts these days, and this will only increase as web software becomes more powerful.

4. Unobtrusiveness vs. and Beauty

The software’s user is here to focus on their work, so it’s critical that design stays out of their way. On the other hand, users spend so much time living in these new tools, they should be beautiful and emotionally appealing in their own right.

Too often, one is sacrificed for the other. For example: Google Docs is pretty good at staying out of your way so you can focus on your content, but no one has ever claimed it to have inspired them to write the next great American novel. Conversely, many task management tools use large skeuomorphic index cards to represent each task, but the metaphor distracts and overwhelms the screen rather than helping the user see their own data.

But what about achieving both? One balance we’ve struck at Asana is to create a UI that is somewhere in between skeuomorphic and flat. The Asana UI consists primarily of overlapping panes that exist in a kind of 2.5D Platonic world of forms. Panes have shadows from a consistent light source, but they float around in ways that are only possible in dreams. We’re still developing this design language, but we think it finds a way to be at once attractive and inconspicuous.

It’s an exciting call to help shape the future of work as we know it for the hundreds of millions of knowledge workers through software design. And it’s not just about making us happier and more efficient at work. Ultimately, we can help all groups—from startups to Fortune 500 companies to governments and nonprofit organizations—achieve their goals, manifest their potential, and do great things.

From what other design challenges have you seen business software suffer? Please share with us in the comments.

[ILLUSTRATION: Technology via Shutterstock]

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3 Comments

  • Aaron Lawrence

    Thanks for the thoughts. But you don't address the problem that the people deciding to buy the software, are often not the users, and probably don't care about any of these things - they just want the features and control they need.

  • adrielomalley

    Thanks for sharing. I found this article very relevant and intuitive. I'd like to read about more examples. 

    I think that the 4 points discussed were great ones! And each could be expanded in greater detail. 

  • joel rosado

    Great read! If you don't think you have the resources to dedicate to building a custom software program in-house for your business, please go to an outside firm.