The Enterprising Designer: Beyond Consumer Product Design

Which is better: A career in consumer product design or a career in enterprise product design?

It’s a question that has followed me around for most of my career. Over the course of 20+ years in the industry — 12 in consumer and the rest in enterprise — I’ve navigated from boom to bust to boom again, toggling between business models, channels, and philosophies. The experience has taught me that one of the keys to growing as a designer is to stay tuned in to what’s happening on a large scale — and to adjust accordingly.

Meanwhile, the either/or question has started to show its age. As new technologies enable new experiences, and enterprises embrace the value of good design, the line between consumer and enterprise is more blurred than ever. These days, the most motivated and creative designers are the ones who move around, absorbing new experiences that change their perspective, challenge their assumptions, and broaden their skills.

The Big Picture

It’s so easy to become consumed with the everyday demands of our jobs and lose focus on the long-term view of our career. If only we could treat our career as we do any other deliberately designed project … where you have to take breaks, step back, and look at how all the pieces are coming together.

For me, it’s been about looking for industry trends at a macro level — and figuring out where I get the best return on the investment of my time.

I think it’s safe to say that everyone is looking for the optimal intersection of these sought-after career attributes:

It’s possible to come upon a pretty solid package of all these benefits in either consumer or enterprise design. But if you’re feeling that your position is lacking in any of these attributes, the answer may be to toggle between consumer and enterprise design. If you’ve been in consumer product design for a long time, branching out into enterprise might be just the shift you need to stretch your creativity — and stimulate your career in the process.

Even Enterprise Is Now Consumer-Driven

A lot of designers’ ideas about enterprise design are based on traditional enterprise software — the complex, clunky kind. Back then, CIOs made purchase decisions largely on the number of features offered, without much consideration for end users.

Now that paradigm has completely flipped: the people using the software drive adoption. Useful, usable software that plays well with the ecosystem wins the day.

What does this mean for designers? The problem space is just as complex as before, but the solution space has opened up tremendously. Designers in the business world, who were heavily constrained a decade ago, are now empowered to create meaningful and game-changing experiences.

When Good Design Became Good Business

When I started working in consumer design in the ’90s, media as a business was brand-new. We were on the cutting edge of figuring out what the online experience delivers and what exactly it drives. And there was the ever-looming question of how to monetize it all. In advertising, it was just shy of pandemonium as the industry was figuring out how to price rich media units, videos, banners, etc. on first generation search engines like Yahoo!, Excite and AltaVista.

In the early 2000s, e-commerce was finding its way. You had companies like WalMart, Amazon, eBay, and PayPal all figuring out how to succeed in this new paradigm. We didn’t know what we were dealing with — it was a large-scale experiment. Needless to say, it was thrilling to work at WalMart as it pioneered the consumer e-commerce experience on such a scale. These companies were some of the first to recognize the importance of good design, and we all got to contribute to making good design mainstream.

It was happening in real time — on our watch.

During that time, it became universally recognized that good consumer design was good business.

And it got me thinking:

Where would I find the next wave of design revolution? What other industries could shift dramatically with this approach?

The Business of Good Design

In the last decade, the enterprise industry has finally woken up. Now classic enterprise companies — Oracle, SAP, Salesforce, Cisco, IBM, and the list goes on — are going headfirst with a deep investment in design.

Consumer design is a mature and somewhat saturated market, though there are, of course, still great opportunities for creativity. But if you zoom out and look at the overarching industry trends, you’ll also see that the enterprise space currently has a big play for designers and all sorts of design capabilities.

There’s a hunger for design in enterprise right now that feels very similar to the atmosphere of that first wave of transformation in consumer design. (For more about this déjà vu, see Enterprise Software Design: A Call to Arms.)

Beyond Intuition

Enterprise design may be getting more and more like consumer design, but it still represents a healthy challenge for consumer-oriented designers, forcing them out of comfortable habits — and into new approaches.

Where in consumer-grade design you often have the luxury of relying on your intuition, that’s generally not how it works with enterprise. You’re working on creating interactions for people doing a very specific set of tasks that likely have nothing to do with what you do. You are rarely the typical user. And that means having to rely on a rigorous process of research, unearthing insights, iterating and developing intricate experiences.

On the consumer side, when you touch something — rework or create a feature — you go deep, and the feature tends to be generally well-contained. In enterprise, when you touch one feature, it has a thousand repercussions . To be successful, you have to approach it from a systems design perspective while driving at simplifying an inherently complex landscape.

But you don’t have to have that skill coming in. It’s a skill you can acquire on the job if you have the head for it and the interest.

Taking the Leap of Faith as an Applicant

Almost a decade ago, I had heard about a team at SAP that was doing interesting stuff with design. I went in for an interview on a whim, and to this day I’m amazed that they offered me a job. In retrospect, it was a pretty gutsy move to apply, knowing I didn’t have all the required skills. But I’m glad I did — and especially grateful that I had a mentor who saw my potential and was certain that my perspective would bring something fresh to the space.

When I voiced my own concerns about my decidedly NOT speedy transition, my boss at the time assured me that he knew I had no enterprise experience — and that it was no accident he hired me. It took a full year to get up to speed, and I suffered from an acute case of impostor syndrome.

I spent the first 6 months thinking I was going to be fired.

But then … it clicked.

I started managing the team of designers working on consumer products and consumer-grade enterprise products. By the time I left SAP, I was in the fortunate position of driving User Experience Innovation at a large scale, affecting bread-and-butter products worth billions of dollars in revenue — all by leveraging lots of amazing talent, some with no prior enterprise experience.

The takeaway for me, which still applies today, was that it’s not always necessary to check off every box on the list of required skills when you’re an applicant. The truth is that it’s okay for consumer designers to venture out into the enterprise space. I went into it with zero experience. It was actually one of the main reasons I was appealing to the hiring manager at SAP.

Taking the Leap of Faith as a Hiring Manager

As a hiring manager now, I see the space between consumer and enterprise design as highly permeable. I know to look beyond skill-set checklists and assess the personal tenacity and design curiosity of every applicant.

Just as the Internet of Things is weaving the digital into the physical, the boundaries between consumer and enterprise design are increasingly getting blurred. In the same way I see potential in candidates coming to enterprise from consumer design, I see the reverse also — and I think this is a good healthy trend overall.

Real World. Real Impact. And No End In Sight

In enterprise design, there is so much work to be done — and you can affect real change in the quality of life for the global workforce. That’s kind of a big deal. Enterprise design has simply been ignored for so long that there is an incredible wealth of innovation and value to be had through design.

Even the smallest improvements can kickstart change that you feel great about. If you’ve cut down tedious steps and made someone’s everyday experience more delightful, that’s worthwhile. Not to mention the fact that cutting down several steps could mean saving billions of dollars. There’s opportunity to make huge leaps and bounds in the business/enterprise space. The world’s infrastructure — the world economy — runs on this stuff.

The best part? The growth of enterprise design shows absolutely no signs of slowing down. Quite simply, it’s a big area of investment with very high returns for everyone involved.

Whether you’ve been considering enterprise design for a while or are just wondering where the next big challenge in your career will come from, I encourage you to come have a look.

If you like what you see, take the leap.