Designing for B2B and enterprise applications

It's not uncommon to hear people complaining about the poor user experience of some B2B (Business-to-Business) and enterprise applications. Often, such applications are hastily put together by an internal team in response to an urgent business need. In other cases, employees have to use a disparate array of applications sourced from multiple suppliers and lacking any commonality in design.

Both suppliers and IT departments will sometimes think that poor user experience isn't such a big issue: employees are a "captive audience" and have to use certain applications as part of their work. However, with people now getting exposed to better designed and easy to use websites in their personal time, they're having higher expectations of the applications they use at work. Poorly designed applications, apart from causing productivity losses, may also lead employees to use unauthorised workarounds. In some cases, such workarounds can lead to data loss or compromise of security.

Applying the following guidelines can help in designing B2B and enterprise applications that offer a better user experience and increase productivity.

1. Study how people work, in their workplace

We always recommend conducting solid user research before starting to design any website or application. This is even more important in a business environment, where requirements can be complicated and designers will be faced with unfamiliar domains. Often requirements will be collected by management and passed on to the designers. This carries several risks, not least that how employees actually work is not always how their management thinks they work.

The research method of contextual enquiry advocates talking directly to potential users of an application, and visiting their workplace in order to understand the full context of their work. Such research can help uncover:

  • Any workarounds that are currently employed
  • Workplace disruptions that may interrupt the use of an application
  • Workplace politics and social dynamics that affect how people collaborate

2. Consider the balance between novice and expert users

Enterprise applications have a more than average proportion of 'expert' users, i.e. users who use the application frequently in their day-to-day work and thus become very familiar with it. This means that users may take the time to learn more complex interactions, and will appreciate if such interactions make their life easier.

However, it's important that enterprise applications accommodate novice users as well. New employees using an application for the first time, or other occasional users must be offered clear, simple journeys. These journeys should focus on executing key tasks quickly and hide the complexities that only expert users will appreciate. Doing so will help eliminate the need for training new users and re-training infrequent users, thus saving time and money.

3. Allow for customisation and personalisation

If it's annoying to have to use a website once that doesn't work the way you want, imagine having to do this every day. The problem is, no matter how many potential users you talk to, there's always going to be a variation in the way people think and work. It's important to recognise this variation, and allow users of your application to customise how it works.

For example, consider providing a personalised home screen where people can add their own shortcuts and views of information. If your application features a search facility, where users may spend time composing a complex set of search criteria, you should also think about allowing them to save these searches so they can repeat them later.

However, don't overdo it with customisation. If you find that you need to make most aspects of an application customisable, it may mean that you're not really certain of users' needs. Besides, users are likely to take some time before they start fully understanding and customising an application they use, so sensible defaults still need to be provided for novice users.

For more ideas and details on this topic, check out our guide to designing customisable websites.

4. Open up your data

There are very few cases where B2B and enterprise applications operate in isolation. More often than not, corporate users have to use an array of applications to get their work done. Unless this scenario has been considered from the beginning, it's often difficult to get applications to work together and seamlessly exchange data, and users have to resort to manual workarounds to keep things moving.

To avoid this happening in your application:

  • Allow users to export data in a format that they're familiar with e.g. Excel spreadsheets
  • Allow users to easily print out information where possible - not everyone wants to review a large amount of information on a computer screen
  • Check if there are any industry-standard data formats relevant to your application domain, and conform to these formats where possible to allow for seamless integration with other applications

5. Collect ongoing user feedback

After an application is deployed and seems to work fine, it's all too easy to forget about it and devote all resources to other projects. However, even after initial problems have been fixed, more things can come up further along the way. It's only after users have been using an application for a while that you can understand if there's scope for further optimising it. For example, you may find that there are certain tedious tasks that users need to frequently repeat, and that such tasks could be automated. You may also need to provide additional functionality to sift through the growing amount of data handled by an application as time passes.

Fortunately, it shouldn't be difficult to collect such feedback: users can be very vocal if something that they have to use every day doesn't work as they expect. Consider providing a way to capture feedback from within your application, allowing users to easily report any issues they have. If your application is supported by a helpdesk, support staff can also provide very useful feedback on the issues that users are facing and the changes that they're requesting.

Conclusion

B2B and enterprise applications needn't be the 'black sheep' in the world of user experience. Ongoing user engagement both throughout the design and after the deployment of an application can ensure that it really does what users need. Catering for both expert and novice users will ensure that valuable employee time is spent doing work, not looking for training. Finally, enabling customisation can make an application go the extra mile and work exactly as users want it to.

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