User experience (UX) is most often seen as relating to e-commerce or at least public-facing websites and applications.
Of course it is much more than that and not even limited to software. Physical devices of all types produce a UX and many companies invest a lot in it; such examples are found with Apple’s iPod and Sony’s PlayStation.
One area far less talked about is UX inside the enterprise.
Large organisations the world over depend on software and that software is often developed internally for specific, internal purposes.
The average enterprise employee will probably use numerous applications during the working day, all built especially for their company’s needs.
In many cases, those employees will tell you how poor those applications are to use and how that negatively affects their productivity. So why is this and why do companies with such extensive resources fail to fix it?
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Exposing the UX issue
The primary reason is that organisations do not understand the user experience. They view what are fundamentally usability issues as problems of a specific business function. With the enterprise operating as a collection of almost autonomous cost centres, it is not surprising that this is how such problems are viewed. Here is an example: Company X has a call centre which comprises the first point of contact for customers.
The call centre uses a number of applications developed by the company’s own development team, which produce a poor user experience. This results in slow call times; backlogs that leave customers waiting; customers being given incorrect information; and increased customer complaints.
Company X recognises these problems but views them as a failing in customer service. Of course customer service staff cannot solve the problem because only the internal development team can do that, by changing the applications. Customer service managers do what they can, which is usually to employ more people in the call centre to handle calls, support staff to help the people handling calls and more training. All of which costs money.
You will often find in such organisations a small industry built up around dealing with what is basically a usability problem.
IT departments are under threat with the growth of cloud-based services and the proliferation of groups in large organisations buying in such services without involving them
Not only has customer service spent more money but it has not really addressed the issue. Calls are still taking too long, customer satisfaction is still low and their complaints too many. Company X has spent money to deal with the symptoms but not the root cause. Let’s look at this example further and the implications of poor usability.
Consider the negative impact on sales, from both new and existing customers, caused by the poor customer experience and the impact on the company’s reputation or brand. Company X may put more pressure on call centre staff and that can lead to extra head count churn with the attendant knock-on effect on human resources costs. Poor standards of data collection by those taking calls can lead to incorrect strategic business decisions taken, with long-term implications for costs and profitability. The picture now is of a problem that is not specific to a function of the organisation but a problem of the organisation.
IT owning UX
These problems will most likely feed back to the IT department, which is in a position to address them. Of course IT decision-makers need to recognise the root cause as being poor UX and decide to do something about it. Critical to this is the department’s understanding of the importance of UX and the value it brings to the business. IT departments are under threat with the growth of cloud-based services and the proliferation of groups in large organisations buying in such services without involving them.
One of the key drivers for this behaviour is the UX provided by such applications. Employees are far less accepting of bad experiences now they use so much software in their personal lives – from social networks to internet banking – that provides great usability.
The IT leaders must recognise this and take ownership of UX. In so doing, they can realise the value of UX to the business and fend off the bring your own device culture. Let’s say this happens, what is next? With each function operating as its own cost centre and with its own budget, who is going to pay for a UX programme? IT will claim it has built an application that meets the requirements set and does not want to pay for a UX programme that will raise its costs, even if it makes customer service more profitable. This is especially the case where IT acts as a service provider to the business and must keep its provisioning costs down.
The solution lies in a cross-departmental approach where cost is shared or allocated separately to the departmental budgets of those who will benefit from the solution. At Company X, customer service, sales, human resources and IT can all expect to see a positive impact from UX.
The real value of UX: improving processes So how does such a programme get up and running in this environment? The first issue is typically to address how UX is viewed in the organisation. Too many people still see it as a creative service and related solely to functions such as marketing communications.
For public-facing websites that can be fine, as marketing communication functions are familiar with design and creative processes and how they benefit the business, mainly in sales and brand promotion. UX is not design and, for the purposes of internal business applications, the definition is vital. UX is about making a change to software-led processes to improve their efficiency and effectiveness (as outlined in the usability International Standard ISO 9241-11).
In the IT world, UX should be seen as providing a business process improvement service. The definition of such a service is an approach aimed at improvements by means of elevating efficiency and effectiveness of the processes in and across organisations, terms that should be familiar to UX professionals.
However, it is important to see how UX changes the way business applications and processes work, such that it brings cross-departmental benefits. UX enables change in a business transformation programme – some could even say it represents the change itself.
With the current market conditions it is not unusual to find that applying the labels “change” or “business transformation” is the only way to get any new programme up and running. Businesses are keen to change the way they operate to push down costs and increase profitability, given the low levels of market growth being experienced in most industries. UX does exactly that, through improving efficiency and effectiveness, as well as enhancing employee and customer satisfaction. From the example of Company X, it becomes clear how an investment in UX can realise returns across multiple business functions. With a return on investment of 6:1 or greater, it can be extremely appealing to any organisation.
So as someone in enterprise IT who sees the value of UX, presenting UX as an enabler of change in a transformation programme will help the IT leader achieve the necessary cross-departmental buy-in from senior stakeholders. This will be vital to get a UX programme running and especially when, as UX matures in the organisation, you start looking to implement a more holistic UX strategy.
Clive Howard is co-founder of web consultancy Howard Baines.
This was first published in May 2013