Last year, I surprised my friends, my colleagues, and myself when I left my career in advertising (think Don Draper) to join the business software industry (think Dwight Schrute). Why did I do it?
Since the dawn of the industrial age, we’ve brought the innovations we use at work into our homes—the iron, the vacuum, the calculator, the computer. But over the past 20 years, as tech shifted to a consumer focus, our work systems have stayed stagnant. This has left us wishing we could bring the beautiful (think Flipboard) and enjoyable (think Mint.com) digital experiences that we have at home into our workplace.
When it comes to the software we use at work, it’s as if the Design Revolution never happened. I’m not talking to you, lucky Adobe users. I’m talking about bookkeeping, asset management, expense reports, and patient care. I’m talking about the majority of workers who are still crunching away on 1996 CRT monitors and the software to match. For nurses, hotel managers, bankers, and sales clerks, the old stodgy apps are an everyday reality and they are clunky and counter-intuitive.
As my CEO at Infor, Charles Phillips, puts it: "using enterprise software sucks." It’s ugly. Cumbersome. Difficult to use. And impossible to love. "When engineers started to build these incredibly complex systems in the early '90s, their biggest concern was: how are we going to make it work?" Charles has said. "Every few years, that mindset continued to evolve—how are we going to make it work faster? Make it work reliably? Make it work everywhere?"
Now that business technology can deliver those basic user needs, it’s time to ask: How can we make business software work beautifully?
Enter the designers. For tech companies, attracting the best engineers, developers, and coders has always been top of mind, but that is rapidly changing as the industry begins to realize just how make or break design can be. More than ever, top business software companies are seeking out creatives to give software more sex appeal. That includes agency folks like me as well as fashion designers, journalists, special effects animators, and filmmakers—creative people who spend their lives pulling consumers in, and making them fall in love with whatever we have to offer. At my company, we’re experiencing the shift firsthand, as our creative team has grown from six to over 60 people in less than a year.
The beauty of having creatives rethink business software is that we know nothing about it. This is hugely helpful as we are seeing it for the first time so can easily identify its flaws, and in turn, immediately see the opportunity to improve the look, feel, and user experience.
Quite simply, as beginners to business software, we’re the best ones to ask, "what if?" And as veteran creatives, we’re best poised to find the answers. We’ve spent years mastering the art of tapping into the consumer mindset to give people what they want, and redesigning business software really is no different. At the end of the day, its business, and users want easy-to-use, visually appealing software that will help them do their job faster and more efficiently.
How do you get there? Challenge your developers and designers to work together to deliver the very best end-user experience possible with these five observations:
Software should look as good as it works: substance and style. Otherwise, it’s really only half a solution. It needs to be a combination of well-designed technology delivered via an equally well-designed experience
From aerodynamics to ergonomics, design increases product performance. Now software needs to embrace the competitive advantages of being well-designed and beautiful, and therefore, more efficient and effective.
We are a culture of screen watchers—big screens, laptops, tablets, and smart phones—so expectations for speed and control have never been higher. Clunky and inelegant interactions, even if it’s only to submit your timesheet, breed dissatisfaction and contempt.
We’ve been trained (and spoiled) by well-crafted user experiences in the B2C universe. It’s inevitable that expectations for similarly engaging experiences are migrating into B2B and at-work interfaces.
If you don’t do it, someone else will. As software and technology providers jockey to distinguish and differentiate their offerings—and to justify the investment in their products—the user experience counts. A lot.
So, what’s in it for us? First, it helps to foster the right culture. In-house we have all of the agency perks without the agency bullsh*t. More importantly, the work that we do has a meaningful impact on people’s day-to-day lives. It’s knowing that hopefully the apps we create can have a positive effect on people’s lives without stealing anything away from them; rather we are making our customer’s day a little easier and more enjoyable.
Perhaps what’s getting creatives most excited about business software is that it’s such uncharted territory. It’s that feeling that after years of figuring out new ways to sell the wheel, you realize that it’s time to reinvent it. Business software is about to have a big moment, and we’re the creative pioneers who are leading it.
[Images: Screenshots taken from Hook & Loop 2013]