Designing enterprise software in the wild — a UX case study
For 7 years I worked in a custom software company where I learned a great deal. There were two designers and a hundred developers working on different projects. Let’s just say that design wasn’t a priority. A lot of patchwork and quick fixes, confusing client communication and not much to show in my portfolio. But it wasn’t all bad. The people were great — likable, hard-working, and doing their work to the best of their abilities. However, the lack of process and clarity on projects often made things difficult.
Having been in these situations regularly, I started spotting ways to improve the process. And I caught myself thinking “we can do better than this”. Yet I never had the guts to push for a change… until a few years ago.
After working my day job, plus freelancing on the side for a while, I burnt out. And then my daughter was born. This all led me to rethink my priorities, and I decided to venture on my own.
I was determined to use what I had learned to help like-minded people, to create better terms of engagement that equal better results for both me and the client.
Becoming a UI/UX designer for enterprise software was a natural progression based on my previous experience. And working with super lean teams is the nature of being a freelancer.
But the combination of both I will say is a pretty recent development — creating an enterprise app in a super lean environment. Enterprise digital products used to be created by other huge enterprise companies like Oracle and SAP. They still do, but now they have competition. Very small agile teams, often less than 10 people, create software to help big organizations scale and be more efficient. I work with them.
As a UI/UX designer with this type of project you play a lot of roles, and often they are not directly related to design. You have to understand how the business works. Growth and product strategy is a big one. To be able to help the founder clarify their ideas. Management and communication skills. To help the dev team prioritize, implement and talk to stakeholders.
You have to be like a therapist to deal with the big personalities that people in this type of teams have. It’s an overwhelming challenge at times. But it is also very dynamic and that makes it fun.
For me to see the impact of your work first hand is a huge driver.
Often when working in big companies you are far removed from the results of what you do. Your real client there is your PM who at times acts in a self-serving manner that makes the whole thing a bit perverse.
On the other hand, in small teams you can level directly with the decision maker. And when you bring value to the table it’s very rewarding, seeing the fruit of your labor positively affecting the product and the organization you are building it for.
The lack of process
When you don’t have an established process it gives you the opportunity to prioritize and skip steps of the standard product development and this speeds up time to market.
Not user centered
The focus, especially in the beginning, is on solving the business’s problem.The user experience is largely ignored. This saves time from gathering and analyzing user insights. You can go straight to testing design concepts with the business.
Data grids & text field
It’s mainly that. Fewer components is always better. It doesn’t make for a very exciting visual design, but it gives you the opportunity to solve bigger, more important problems.
Full control over the design
Full autonomy. In small teams you get to carry your own responsibilities. No one has time to manage you. You can make decisions and move quicker.
Make a real impact on the business
Your design decisions have real-life implications to the business’s bottom line. All design is business driven. And you quickly learn what is really valuable, and that is decoration.
No BS communication. Work from anywhere. Good ideas are valued more than hierarchy and titles. No dress code.
The lack of process
The moment the team starts growing this becomes a problem. I’ve seen this multiple times in my work. After you pass the initial proof of concept and you start moving faster, things get messier if you don’t introduce some rules. I believe this is a very overlooked step from most bootstrapped companies.
Not user centered
This helps you move fast in the beginning but can quickly become the most dangerous thing when it comes to scaling the product. Not taking into account the user experience can significantly increase the onboarding cost for users, and can produce a lot of churn.
And if you are a SaaS, this make sales and marketing very difficult for you.
You can’t share your work
When you do enterprise apps, especially for internal use, you can’t brag about it. You can’t show it in your portfolio.
Design is not priority
It’s a rarely an urgent matter.
Most founders of enterprise software don’t like to deal with design. They like to make it work and then make it pretty on the way out.
In a couple of years when the enterprise software market is saturated with enough affordable solutions, this will all change. Just solving the problem will not be enough to have a profitable enterprise software business. You have to start caring about the user experience.
But who am I to tell you what is going to happen? Nobody really. I just want you to make you think.
They say “people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses”. I wonder if, when most companies become software driven, this saying will change to “people don’t quit bosses, they quit software”.