Surviving in Complexity, Chaos and Constraints

What are the top three things first come to your mind when someone ask you to describe enterprise software? Clunky, ugly, costly? Confusing, frustrating, disappointing? Blegh. I knew it.

Have you ever found yourself muddling through complicated screens for so long that the silicon-valley-damn-smart-geeky you started feeling like an idiot whose brain cells are all downright dead? Don't my dear.

"It's not you. It's me."

Sorry being a user experience designer working in the enterprise software for a fair number of years, I still haven't done a good job at making your work life easier.

Wait a minute: why am I apologizing?

Enterprise user experience is never a one-person's job. There's just enormous complexity and constraints one UX designer has to think about when proposing or creating any design solutions - Does leadership design thinking ever exist? Do we have top-down authority? How many stakeholders? What are the rationales behind this product feature? Who are the end users we are designing for? How do we validate the design? What are the technology constraints? ...

The list goes on. I'm sure these are pretty much the primary questions every UX designer need to ask whatever project they are on. It's just in big companies things usually get twice, no triple, actually quadruple times complicated. At least. The constraints one UX designer working within are like what Catherine Zeta-Jones did in Entrapment - there are only certain tangible movements within given space you can do in order to accomplish your mission.

The overburdened process is the biggest headache. Most of time it's like too many chefs in a kitchen - everyone wants (or claim they do) to cook a delicious dish, but it always takes too long to solidify the recipe and pick out the ingredients, and it gets even lengthy to actually build the features. If we get lucky, things to be done sometimes could be scaled down to bite-size tasks, but still, to win everyone's heart over for design is quite struggling. Functionality-goes-first remains the dominating mindset in most engineering-centric companies. To reveal elusive aspects of design is the bigger challenge for enterprise UX folks, other than actually delivering mockups and prototypes, as well as constantly learning new design skills to ensure the toolbox stays up-to-date.

"Woot, this is sexy" I remembered this comment well from the days while working at Juniper. With no idea where our beloved software engineers got the idea from using this lingo to acknowledge their awakening realization about what UX enhancements can do to an enterprise software, but from then on, I kept hearing people asking for the the same thing "Can we make this tool look sexy (or sexier) like Apple?"

Taking inspiration from another company's successful design system doesn’t make much sense to attempt to adopt it wholesale. Let's ask ourselves this first: Is being "sexy" or revamping a web-2.0 look the right thing to do while the whole business model and culture is a completely different picture?

I'm not saying we don't need to wow our customers with functionalities that outshine our competitors, however, presenting a common action or interaction in a more delightful way is absolutely not the last minute plug-and-play lego piece to complete the puzzle, nor that nice-to-have gem on the crown. User experience is the indispensable ingredient when cooking your Ratatouille. I don't question our development teams' intelligence to build the well-structured data models and complex interfaces, but without UX, it's only like wasting days and months of blood, sweat, and tears to build another Winchester house (unless your intention is to turn the million-dollar effort into a potential museum exhibition).

Adopting a design mindset doesn't mean authority or development or any other functional teams all go rolling up sleeves to craft the screens. Let our UX people worry about details like how the wording of the button label needs to change, or whether the checkboxes should be aligned left or right, or if having an overlay is better than a modal dialog. Of course, there is no silver bullet, all actionable design solutions have to be based on the true understanding of actual context and business priority. Especially if you have outsider designers from some dreamy big-name design agency on the project.

Enterprise UX has been done wrong for so long. The paradigm make-over is surely not gonna happen with a snap of fingers. Seeing one or two products successfully align with the company's newly rebranding is a positive sign but don't be fooled by this some kind of delusional harmony. Building a design-savvy culture requires lots of patience, dedication and delicacy from everyone.

"The smallest step taken in the right direction may end up being the biggest change in your life" - this week's quote from my lunch lady's little black board

Game on UX folks. Let's get on the warpath and start cracking the toughest nut in the world, shall we? One design at a time to make some more impact in the world.