2018: The Year of Enterprise Design

In enterprise, design has not been the core focus — 2018 is going to change that, especially at VMware.

Traditionally, enterprise has not been the place for innovation, bar setting, or even basic focus when it comes to user experience. It’s true. There are valid reasons for this, and we need to understand them in order to change. Below are a few of the highlights:

Many enterprise applications are focused on a subset of the market where solutions are complex and options are limited. Because of those limitations and the often high barrier to entry, functionality is valued far more than ease of use or even experience, let alone delight. A solution is needed and even one with poor design is preferable to no solution at all.

The end user of an enterprise application is generally NOT the decision maker. Deals are not made or closed by those who actually use the product. When you buy an iPhone as an individual consumer, you get to decide if spending the additional $200-300 dollars out of your own budget is worth it for you. In enterprise software, someone else decides. You get to advise, at best. Factors like price start mattering much more than ease of use because those who make the purchasing decision rarely need to live with the consequences of using the solution.

Feature lists and product comparisons start becoming the default standard for decisions, which in turn drives product development and engineering culture. This is not true for every company — but traditionally, it’s been the case.

Feature lists shouldn’t dictate product quality

When it ‘works’, it’s a vicious circle. When enterprise companies are able to sell subpar user experiences to customers who continue to buy, renew, and upgrade while demanding very little from a user experience point of view, these priorities get reflected internally within those companies.

Design teams are viewed as merely a supporting function of the engineering or product organizations, and designers are seen as consultants (mostly to make things look pretty late in the product development cycle) and even as blockers to engineering progress when deadlines are tight. Funding for design teams shrinks and sometimes vanishes, and focus starts to shifts further from design and user experience to feature lists. Design is not seen as an independent and important function of the product development cycle.

A changing landscape

Well, a few things are happening that allow enterprise companies to change this view dramatically. This change has only been truly materializing in the past few years. This is why this year, for us, is such an important one to capitalize on the changing landscape.

Greater expectations for better user experience

The line between enterprise and consumer design is becoming blurred. This is a result of many things, but most importantly due to the growing demand from users for better user experience to rival that of the consumer apps they use every single day.

Gone are the days where enterprise applications run in separate worlds from consumer apps. The same browser window runs both. Most of the time, it’s running both at the same time for the same user. Your email, social media, and shopping sites run side-by-side with your heavy enterprise apps, creating a stark contrast to the user and raising expectations not just for high performance, look and feel, and ease of use, but also for delight.

A growing competitive landscape

The competitive landscape is changing too. In enterprise today (especially for cloud), the competition is Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, all of which are consumer companies turned enterprise and have the same designers working across the company. The same DNA that builds consumer is building enterprise. If delight and customer experience are in your DNA to begin with, you’re going to build products with delight for enterprise too.

A grassroots approach

Enterprise companies themselves are also changing, driven by the move to SaaS products that are more focused on end user adoption coming before wide enterprise adoption (think Slack) and that give far more importance to customer loyalty. Moving from one service to another is becoming far easier than moving from one traditional software contract to another. End users matter again. End users vote with their keyboards and usage is the most important metric, far more important than just the number of users.

Nurturing a ‘change’ mindset

A few months ago, I started leading the VMware Design Team. Since then, my team and I have had many conversations with designers as well as engineering and product teams around the company, and with our customers. What we learned shapes the transformation we are planning for VMware’s user experience. To understand the transformation and why it’s needed, it’s important to first understand the context in which it will need to happen.

In tech, they say that the only constant is change. Strong and capable teams are the ones that understand important pivot points within a company or an industry and either shape those pivotal moments or quickly shape their reaction to them. Transformation means the ability to recognize what works and is successful, while still being able to identify what needs to change in order to be a leader in the industry.

At VMware, we’re different in many ways, but we’re no different when it comes to being affected by these changes. We’re an enterprise software company that is quickly and successfully moving to SaaS. The transition to focus on user experience has been ongoing at VMware with significant successes over the past year or two including excellent improvements to our product and services with clear examples like VMware Cloud on AWS, the vSphere Client, our management products, Clarity, and more. That transformation should now accelerate to meet the speed at which our company and the industry is moving.

Our VMware Design 2018 Plan

The VMware Design logo

Minding this changing landscape, we’re determined to be at the forefront of it. So what is our team trying to accomplish in 2018?

  1. Build the best design team and design culture: we’re building the best design team in the industry. Period. We have the right ingredients, yet we need more. Within an engineering-focused company, it is critical that product designers have a clear set of values and areas of focus, are able to grow their craft, are empowered to quickly deliver and refine their designs in partnership with others on the product team, and grow their leadership skills. Improvements to hiring practices and the interview processes are also needed. In addition to looking for great designers that meet our criteria, we need to improve the way we look for cultural fit to focus on cultural contribution. We want to grow with every addition to the team, not just reinforce our existing culture. We’re also working to raise the bar for our designers and shift our focus from the functional to the delightful and train them to take on design and leadership challenges. Most importantly, we’re encouraging risk-taking in design to make sure we’re coming up with many ideas, iterating, and improving as we go.
  2. Build solid design infrastructure: we’re building solid infrastructure for design and designers at VMware. Our open source design system, Clarity, provides a core foundation for this infrastructure. Building upon it, we’re forming a research framework team (called Context, because all you need is Clarity and Context 🙂), a DesignOps team, and a cloud patterns team. Design infrastructure and tools are crucial to making sure designers have the foundation they need internally in order to focus on experience, not pixels. There will be growing pains involved with forming a solid design infrastructure, and we hope to share some of these challenges and how we address them within the greater design community.
  3. Elevate and expand design within VMware and VMware Design externally: we need to grow design thinking within all areas of VMware and its processes, which more than likely will require an increase in the ratio of designers to engineers. In order to do this, we need to work internally with engineering and product teams to increase awareness of design, teach design thinking, and help teams understand how they can improve their customer experience. Elevating design within VMware means making sure the whole company, not just the design team, has design and user experience at the core of their product development process to build a better, more effective, and delightful experience for our customers. We want to play a bigger role in the larger design community, especially in enterprise design. You’ll start seeing more VMware designers at design events to both share and learn.

2018 is the year of enterprise design — and for us, the year of VMware Design.

Although we won’t always succeed, the speed at which we learn from our failures and continue to deliver high quality design is how we will measure VMware’s success.

The bar is no longer relative to the past, it’s relative to what can be and what our customers expect. VMware’s goal is to be the bearer of user experience standard and our key result is for customers to love using VMware’s products and services.

Join us on this journey

This is an extremely exciting transition for VMware and for the VMware Design Team. The team is looking forward to sharing our progress with the community very soon!

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