Giving Enterprise Software a Social Makeover Attracts Users

When it comes to developing enterprise applications, organizations are increasingly realizing that user experience is as important as functionality. In response, vendors are taking a more agile approach to building those apps in order to better meet users' needs.

By John Moore
Tue, April 16, 2013

CIO — Users for many years have viewed enterprise applications through the "green screen." Even now the typical business app rarely wins kudos for approachability and intuitive appeal, with functionality trumping user interface (UI) design and the overall user experience (UX).

The upshot, in some cases, is slow adoption among users and a steep investment in training to get everyone up to speed. Plus, of course, slow or limited adoption impacts the anticipated return on investment for a given application.

To combat this, some enterprise applications are beginning to incorporate social, consumer-inspired interfaces. Some vendors borrow heavily from Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter and other mainstays of consumer culture. The idea: Put a familiar, easy-to-use front end on a system and users will respond favorably.

That approach attracted Rana Blair, principal at ECOM Engineering. The Sacramento-based electrical and telecom engineering firm needed a better way to coordinate project teams and tapped Kona, a cloud-based collaboration and productivity tool. Deltek, an enterprise software provider focusing on professional services firms and government contractors, combined elements of social media and project-oriented collaboration in developing Kona.

"Our reasoning for aiming at a 'consumer' feeling design for a work application is all about getting user adoption inside the business," says Jeff Eckerle, who co-founded the in-house Kona startup within Deltek.

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Kona's ease of use intrigued Blair. "I don't take tutorials or review feature sets," she says. "I'm of the mind that, if I can't use it right away, then no one else will."

Industry executives contend that consumerized enterprise products go beyond simply tacking a social media feature on a business app, arguing that attention to UI and UX improves user uptake and cuts training costs. At this early stage, however, the hard numbers to back up this assertion are lacking.

Firms Go Social to Improve Ease of Use, Adoption

ECOM Engineering juggles multiple projects as it pursues a mix of client work in fields ranging from electrical engineering design to audio/visual systems. The company had relied on email as a collaboration mechanism. It also tried different project management and collaboration software products.

Blair, who handles IT among other functions at ECOM Engineering, says she used a number of tools in the past, including social media platforms such as Basecamp Web-based project management software, Google groups, Ning.com and Facebook.

"I had no success in getting adoption with the groups I manage," Blair recalls. "Kona is the first tool that people have actually latched on to in even the most basic ways. This is important—not everyone has a native understanding of how applications work or a natural inclination to click until they find a way."

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