By Bala S. — Get free updates of new posts by following me on Twitter
It’s been a while since I moved into data heavy platforms that have served legacy systems for more than a decade. I used to be in awe of sharp apps that did just one thing and did it well — Mobile and web apps that were taking over the market with frightening speed. Start-ups inventing ideas that would command mass following…
Somewhere down the line I shifted gear and looked at systems that supported very large organisations and public sector enterprises; Systems that run mission critical applications that could span an entire spectrum of populace. Systems that were developed and engineered more than a decade ago but still functioning and carrying out really important tasks in industries like security, energy, insurance, defence, banking, education, aerospace etc.
How many times have you accessed, say, online banking and thought, this is a great application — its secure, easy to use, accessible anytime and its from my favourite bank. Similarly when you travel by the tube (that’s for us Londoners) — top up your Oyster card, check train timings; you get a seamless experience, mostly.
When you travel — buy your flight tickets, board a plane, arrive at your destination. We do all of this every day without batting an eyelid. We expect these experiences to be transparent, easy and memorable (if you are on a holiday, not on the tube to work!).
What you see on the front, the interface, the experience, the tangible pieces of items that get your job done are supported by an enormous and hard to maintain array of systems that were built many years ago.
Systems that we call legacy platforms. They work and they work well, keeping the user on the move, doing what they do best, getting on with their jobs with minimum disruption.
Its these tireless systems that don’t take credit for your banking app which helped you transfer money in an instant to your friend and you thought — cool app! great design, works like a breeze.
When you step out of the airplane and the fresh air hits your face, you think — amazing airline, fantastic food, will definitely use these guys again. When you visit someone in the hospital and see that they are recovering fast — you just smile at the good work at the hospital, the care and attention to detail that has helped someone on the road to recovery.
There are endless examples — but there is one robust system behind the scenes, running everything like clockwork — making sure the friend gets notified about the money transferred to him, making sure the airline was on time, making sure the patient data is constantly monitored and reported to the hospital staff.
‘Making sure’ is a driving tenet of technology that
enterprise systems stand for.
And looking at how these legacy systems are designed, over the last few years that I have worked on them have given me sleepless nights. Patchwork upon patchwork of functional modules that has created a behemoth that's not easy to tame, slow to respond, hard to train on and costly to run. Why this disparity, you’d ask?
On one hand we provide the best in class user experience to the users who benefit from our systems and on the other hand is this vast amount of interconnected-coded-and-patched-module-work of a system that most people would want to stay away from.
The staff at a banking back-office, engineers peering through a large array system console at a power grid, stock brokers looking at data intensive desktops changing every second, aerospace consultants monitoring movement of goods and men in high-risk areas across the globe, law enforcement agencies tracking cases with courts, local government staff trying to go paperless, anti money laundering squads risking life during raids noting down crucial details on the ground, very large blue chip companies conducting risk assessments on their locations / factories with accurate reporting for future forecasts….
The list again will go on and on….
Working on these enterprise wide projects has brought about a simple and hard to ignore insight —
Enterprise user experience can win when both sides of
the coin have equal value.
The enterprise is the user. The user who has to work to make someone else’s user experience seem transparent.
What I have learnt is not how we can simplify the enterprise user experience so its happy days again. Its the ability to listen, talk, discuss, understand, keep quiet and not try to assume that we can provide a better solution that will be a game changer. A solution can come later.
The enterprise brings with it people, who have got used to working in trenches, have spent a long time in departments that have become silos and hierarchy that resembles fiefdoms.
Working closely with people who have an absolute authority or expertise in their field of work, looking at their day to day functions, how they have custom built some processes that they know like the back of their hand, how they collaborate and mediate team functions, how they overcome the red tape associated with department functioning — its the conversations that bring out the best out of people. Hidden insights could be easily missed if you don’t ask the right questions.
Enterprise UX starts with loads of conversations. Gathering insights through these engagements with your users will help you gain valuable information before you start looking at the possibilities of a new solution.
More often than not — these users have been using their systems for a very long time, not because they love it but because of a lack of an extremely superior alternative. And every time there is a talk to replace the system and engage with a new vendor (or solution provider) there is a whole list of do’s and don’ts before the procurement process starts. Your ideas will not get past this initial hurdle if you don’t have an absolutely sharp product idea that has the courage to move through the barriers and go to the next level of talks.
This is where engagements matter — At the start of a highly potential project for the local governments in the UK we started out with road trips. Meeting different counties and the speaking to the staff about their everday flow of work — what worked for them, what didn’t and what frustrated them and how they overcame these pain points individually to make the legacy systems work form, partially. This was getting their job done, but with immense pressure on time & keeping up with project life cycles.
When faced with no option of improvements on a legacy system, most people we spoke to had devised their own way of getting around the pain points. It worked but it also showed us a big gap that needed addressing immediately. We went on road and met scores of people who are on using a system that has become a major hurdle to their everyday work. Engaging people has taught us many things and validated a lot of assumptions, some of them really risky.
It has helped us move forward, not towards development, but towards clarity on why enterprise systems are such a neglected area when it come to user experience.
My thoughts are more clearer and for me the enterprise poses a great challenge, but also offers at the same time, a greater opportunity to a more simplified customer experience. Everything within the enterprise are connected to people who use them and its the people who must be understood and spoken to so the enterprise benefits.
I write for startups, people who want to try out an idea and for everyone who puts validation & customer experience at the heart of their business. If you liked this post, say hello on twitter — Bala S.