Building For The Enterprise — The Zero Overhead Principle

Editor’s note: DJ Patil is a data scientist in residence at Greylock Partners. You can follow him on Twitter.

The enterprise is back. We’re seeing a resurgence of companies to help support everyday work tasks. Workday is replacing stodgy-feeling HR systems with intuitive software that users can easily navigate. Dropbox and Box are resolving the time-old challenge of file sharing and alleviating the frustration of using SharePoint. Even LinkedIn is providing novel recruiting and career management solutions for the general consumer and the enterprise customer. But while these successful companies are tackling different issues, their general product philosophy is much closer than many realize.

A central theme to this new wave of innovation is the application of core product tenets from the consumer space to the enterprise. In particular, a universal lesson that I keep sharing with all entrepreneurs building for the enterprise is the Zero Overhead Principle: no feature may add training costs to the user.

My team and I at the Department of Defense discovered this vital rule in the biggest enterprise of them all — the U.S. government. After 9/11, we were tasked with building new technologies to support counter-terrorism analysts, and we quickly learned a critical lesson in how the analysts interacted with technology. We observed that regardless of how powerful the new technology was that we deployed, our largest challenge was getting the analysts to adopt it.

The real challenge for analysts is that they are already overloaded and tend to ignore additional tools that require training (remember these guys have real time pressure).  So we had to adopt a different mindset. Our products had to work naturally with the analysts’ work styles. Period.  That’s the Zero Overhead Principle. Put another way, our products had to teach the user as they went along. In essence, we were really just building enterprise products with a consumer mindset.

Products that require training are a waste of time. Do you remember the last time you took a training class? You were probably in a room with poor lighting, alongside other people who really didn’t want to be there, half-listening to a monotoned instructor (sounds kind of like driver’s education, right?). Did you really pay attention? Of course not. You probably used the event as an opportunity to catch up on your social networks. After all, you’d been given the information in those handouts anyway. And when you actually had to use the system, the frustration set in immediately. Inevitably, you had to find someone in your organization who actually knew the answer or resort to reading the handouts to complete a one-minute task.

Why do we tolerate a lack of the Zero Overhead Principle?  Many people claim it’s because of the complexity of the technology. That’s silly. When was the last time you took a class on Google, Facebook, or LinkedIn? (Granted, there are those that are trying to make money by hosting these classes.) Need more evidence? My three-year-old kid kicks my butt in Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies (without being able to read a single word).  Even the iPhone and iPad don’t include a manual! These products are just as complex as enterprise products. The reason they have to subscribe to the Zero Overhead Principle is because if they don’t, user adoption will fail.

What are the traits that the best enterprise companies use in adopting lessons from the consumer experience? Here are the top three product principles:

1. Focus on building a “glide path.” Build the product in a way that funnels users into the experience so that they are becoming increasingly adept at understanding and using the product.

2. Use data to find friction. If you can’t measure it, you can’t fix it. Instrument the product to monitor user flows and be able to test new ideas in how to iteratively improve your product.


3.  Prioritize the design experience. Too often we’ve seen enterprise companies that leave design as the last step in an attempt to add some polish. Instead, put it up front and integrate it into the entire process. It’s a lesson that has served the consumer environment well and will continue to pay dividends in the enterprise environment.

Focusing on the underserved areas of enterprise is becoming a growing trend, as savvy enterprise customers want better software. If you are tackling the enterprise, give yourself a competitive advantage and make sure to implement the Zero Overhead Principle.