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Why I Left Advertising To Become A Software Designer

There’s a war for design talent between technology and advertising companies, with tech quickly gaining ground. Marc Scibelli of Infor explains why he left the ad industry after 18 years to focus on the UX of business software.

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 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:

1. We fall in love with the complete package

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

2. Good design enhances productivity

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.

3. Users expect their screens to engage

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.

4. We are 24/7, always-on consumers

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.

5. It’s smart business

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]

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  • Sandie Abel

    Dear Marc--as an end user of software in healthcare, I like your approach very much. The software we use is very---comprehensive; but not always very comprehensible. I'm not sure why this is; it seems software designers spend little time with their end users.

    Designing work flows in which Step 1 proceeds logically to Step 2--for the end user--seems to be a major problem. I don't know if upgrades need to "work around" previously existing obstacles; perhaps that's why so many work flows have so many "knights' moves" steps that must be memorized by rote rather than simply used organically.

    I know nothing about writing software, but I know a lot about the frustrations of using software. Do software designers, especially for workplaces, ever collaborate with end users--especially "grunts"? If so, how does a reasonably intelligent but software-naive individual connect with designers who are creating the software we must use to get our work done? Thanks, Sandie

  • Since a long time, basically afeter I began with UX and web design this subject has been around my head. Now I see there are already companies just focus on visual design for software. where to star?

    I want to work with you!

  • Terri Swiatek

    Sounds like a awesome gig.

    I've worked for both, currently on the ad side. It's tough, tech companies with unique proprietary software can make good profits for a while without caring too much about style. And many ad firms could give two shakes about user experience as long as it looks great. While both could benefit tremendously by bringing in more of the other.

    Creatives always want to create, sometimes the ad biz feels more like a sales department than creation. Wish there were more places that hit that sweet middle ground.

  • Steve Mac

    GREAT... finding the opportunity , but why does software industry treat their products as commodities , why havent they cared of breacking the edge , If they see what Apple is doing and fjord and some very few more. there are a lot of markets that dont care about design till its to late, why do they choose brand and personality for their lifes and don t work the same experience for their products. Change produces emotional crisis and fear , so they keep on beloging to sameness land

    don t change the industry change the users that are already changing in this right moment , make them demand beauty and simple usability.

    simplicity in design rocks louder but dont forget that there s a moyority who dont care in hearing well

  • This is really pertinent to my career since coming out of college. I started off doing graphic design work for concerts, books CD covers and such, but when I discovered web design I was blown away. This market is just beginning and UI experiences are still struggling with age old problems that many designers have worked out before. I decided to go in that direction.

    Now I am only a year out of college and I work as a UI designer for a Enterprise product start up in a foreign country. It's extremely interesting and data driven which not only makes it practical but puts all the focus then on the user experience.

  • Äzmy Hanifa

    your story seems interesting because my idea is the same as urs.. I'm out of college currently, basically was into graphic designing and now starting out the web design world... when it comes to UI designing, where should i start, i mean I love designing user interface elements, read some books about it. but I'm unaware of where i should start...