Enterprise UX is French Baroque

The case for Enterprise Digital Product Design

During my time as an undergrad, an extra-curricular activity that took up a majority of my time was the university’s theatre department. (You know I’m legit because I spell it ‘re’.)

In one of the first productions I was involved with, I played a prince filled with unrequited love, Antiochus, in a student adaptation of Bérénice by Jean Racine. Racine was a champion of French Baroque theatre. French Baroque, or Neo-classicism, was a stylistic attempt to return to simplicity of structure by adopting Aristotle’s “Classical Unities.” This was a set of rules that governed the length of the play, the plot of the play, the setting of the play, and the time overlapped within a play.

Me as Prince Antiochus in an adaptation of Jean Racine’s “Bérénice”.

To the modern creatives, these limitations seem to create unnecessary constraints that would limit the type of story that you’re telling. But Racine and his contemporaries, such as Pierre Corneille, didn’t quite see it that way. Their view was that the constraints actually resulted in an increase of creative expression. By having clearly defined lines to draw within, the artist was better able to focus on the message they were trying to express. It was one less variable to consider.

This could be equated to a common metaphor that I’ve heard over the years. Let’s imagine that creative work is represented by a kite, and the higher the kite flies, the more successful it is. As that kite rises into the sky, at some point, the kite’s string will go taught, and the it’ll stop rising.

The kite will pull at that string, tying to rise higher and higher into the creative atmosphere. But if the string was cut in order to free it, the kite would not rise. On the contrary; it would plummet to the earth.

To the creator it might seem like the string (i.e. rules and guidelines) was holding the kite (i.e. creative work) back from continuing to rise. But in reality, it was the restrictions and tension placed on the kite by the string that caused it to fly in the first place.

What does that mean for product designers?

Enterprise digital product design doesn’t have the sexiest reputation in the industry. Healthcare, point-of-sale software, CRMs, and marketing workflows don’t really inspire the imagination of most creatives. Creatives who are transitioning to a career in UX will be probably attracted by the Van Gogh of Go(gh)ogle or the Frank Lloyd Wright of Apple, but there is something to be said for the Versailles of the digital world.

“…but there is something to be said for the Versailles of the digital world.”

These French Baroque digital products are staggering in their size, breadth, symmetry, hierarchy, and purpose. And to be completely frank, they’ve historically been more in line with the brutalist movement — raw, functional, and honest. However, we are on the brink of a new age of design in the enterprise and B2B niche, and this is largely because of the string attached to the enterprise kite.

The scope of a B2B platform, like Salesforce, Adobe’s Experience Cloud, or SAP, is so massive that it would be impossible for even an extremely competent experience designer to tackle alone. The answer? Specialization. Instead of the designer wearing several hats to be a product manager, program manager, and prototype engineer, all of those responsibilities are met by individuals with those specific skills. What is left is the time and resources for the designer to do what designers should do best: identify and solve problems.

And boy, what problems.

The B2B enterprise designer has reached new heights with their kite string. These are the “Classical Unities” adopted from Aristotle. There are huge restrictions around market parity, novelty, innovation, legal implications, patents, roadmap priority, organizational KPIs, technology, and a million other things.

In addition to that, any enterprise software product worth its salt will have to integrate with other products, and other areas within its massive infrastructure . It’s a big knot of a problem that takes a certain level of masochism to enjoy undoing. But for those who are up for the challenge, the personal and monetary payoff can be significant.

We will always need consumer products to be beautiful, elegant, and useful, but a new frontier is emerging — a place where businesses are beginning to see the ROI and dollar amount value of experience design on robust enterprise software. A place where spokespeople for design in large organizations are at a premium. A place not afraid of the string, the Classical Unities, or the limitations, but rather embraces those limitations as liberating. Enterprise digital product design is challenging, exciting, and rewarding. More than anything though, it’s baroque.