Perfecting The Enterprise End User Experience

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Editor’s note: Todd McKinnon is CEO of identity management firm Okta. Follow him on Twitter @toddmckinnon.

Everyone talks about user experience. It’s often referred to in terms of how “sticky” an app is: how easy it is to use, how engaging it is, how relevant it is to what users are doing, etc. All are elements that contribute to a compelling experience, regardless of industry or app type. But while user experience is well understood and has always been core to the development and success of consumer-facing apps, the same is hardly true in the enterprise world.

So why is that and what are we – as enterprise software companies – doing about it?

To make a lasting impact and to drive change within it requires an entirely new way of thinking about software development and large-scale technology projects. It’s also one that suggests we look to our consumer counterparts for guidance on how to put the user first and build technology second.

If we mimic companies like Uber and GoPro – resisting the temptation to simply recreate old experiences in a new environment – we’ll enable entirely new, powerful use cases. We’ll move away from the old standard of iteration to a new standard of true innovation. We’ll create business value that didn’t exist previously that ultimately makes companies more competitive. We’ll make the economy stronger. We might even make the world better.

It’s a massive challenge, but it’s also a massive opportunity.

What You Want To Do vs. How You Get There

Technology has gotten a lot easier and more efficient because many companies are moving to cloud computing and adopting more mobile devices. Traditional tasks are becoming automated, and apps no longer come with a user manual because experiences are just that intuitive.

But it’s about more than that. As our world continues to evolve, we cannot continue thinking of technology in terms of dollars saved or hosting data outside company walls. It’s not just about cost effectiveness and the bottom line. We must break out of the traditional ‘technology view’ and start to think about what technology now makes possible, creating new experiences and delivering top-line value in the process.

When the founders of Uber initially had the idea for the app, they didn’t think about a huge logistics network for routing luxury cars and cabs. Instead, they thought about making it possible to have a town car drive up to anyone’s location with a few taps of their iPhone. They thought about the user experience and innovated by focusing on delighting them versus the back-end technology to make it possible. GoPro is another example. Their team didn’t think about the technology behind creating a mobile camera to mount anywhere, one that was waterproof and offered high-res video or stop motion. They thought about their love for surfing and how to capture those incredible moments no matter where they were.

The enterprise world needs to borrow a page from the playbook of the Ubers and GoPros of the consumer world. We must first focus on helping the user do what they want to do and then build the sophisticated technology to get there.

Healthcare.Gov: Right Time, Wrong Focus

Thinking about the user first is an entirely new way of thinking in software development. We’re pivoting from the concept of functional requirements focused on business processes and data flows and turning everything around so the focus is on the end user. We’re thinking about allowing them to do what they want to do no matter where they are or the device they’re on.

The recent Healthcare.gov debacle is a good example of the old way of thinking. With Healthcare.gov integrating data from many different agencies, developers focused on looking at the data that needed to be integrated rather than the usability of the information. Focusing on usability would have led to making better decisions about how to best handle all of that data. Developers could have concluded that pricing information and plan details could be retrieved in infrequent batches, rather than in real-time, since that type of data is unlikely to change minute-by-minute. These issues could have been sidestepped if developers had focused on consumer use cases – and what they would try to do once they landed on the site – rather than back-end issues. As a result, the project was doomed from the outset.

So, What Can We Do?

What’s possible when you focus on the user first and technology second? It’s still too early to really tell, but the future does look bright.

It comes down to the opportunity for people to use apps and devices that make them most productive whenever and wherever they need them. It’s the ability to remove the barriers to getting business done so they can collaborate across companies – and so partners and customers can get access to the resources and information they need more easily.

What’s especially exciting is that there’s an innovation ‘ripple effect’ that takes place. By delivering intuitive and powerful software that just works, companies will be able to focus on new projects that differentiate their organizations. They’ll create new ways to engage with partners and customers, build entirely new products that drive top-line revenue, and design innovative new workflows that set them apart from competitors.

Ask any CIO what the biggest impact of cloud and mobile has been on their world, and they’ll talk about the transformation of their role within the enterprise to be “business enablers,” allowing employees and partners to be more productive, creative and competitive instead of gatekeepers.

The user experience is essential to any modern technology project today, and how organizations prioritize usability to deliver new experiences separates the wheat from the chaff. If we enable our customers to simply recreate business processes and apps of the client-server era in new environments, we fail. We fail as an industry, as a community and as individual companies.

There’s so much more opportunity than that and we need to go after those opportunities before someone else does.

Illustration: Bryce Durbin

IMAGE BY Bryce Durbin