Why does enterprise software suck so much?
A bit of venting, comparing a corporate to a non-corporate environment
I’ve been doing User Experience design for a long time now, and I’ve noticed over and over again that enterprise software and tools generally suck. It’s usually clunky, buggy, incredibly hard to learn to use, full of strange language and just plain ugly.
Why is this? Is the answer that the people who buy the software aren’t the ones using it? Is it because they just don’t care about the people who are forced to use it? Is it because commercially acceptable software is just too expensive? Is it quite the opposite: corporates have invested so much money in their crappy software, that they just can’t afford to change it? Is it because big businesses move very slowly, and so they actually do buy great software, but the software just ages really badly, and then you end up with bad experiences for long stretches of time?
I don’t believe it’s any of the above. I think the problem is a lot simpler.
Corporates buy crappy software, because they believe that that’s what software is like. Most of the senior people in big corporates haven’t spent enough time in other kinds of environments. They haven’t seen that there’s a world of beautiful, delightful, efficient digital tools out there: software and experiences that make people happy, and get the job done more quickly.
For the last three years, I’ve been working inside one of those corporate beasts. Our brand is immensely powerful, internationally recognised and brings to mind pictures of sparkly, white environments with well-heeled business people using the latest in technology. And yet, the in-house digital tools and experiences are horrendous. Logging expenses, capturing time sheets, booking conference rooms, connecting to your nearest printer, changing company passwords and sometimes, just connecting to the internet are all seriously painful activities, ridden with bad interface designs, non-sensical error messaging and mind-blowing inefficiencies.
If your title is “User Experience Designer”, being forced to use these tools is like someone giving a really good toy maker a broken toy, and forcing him to play with it. It’s cruel.
Approaching people within the firm and talking about it, results in blank stares or the kind of genuine concern one would express for a 2-year old who is crying his heart out because his favourite crayon is missing. The response is also analogous: “Why are you complaining? Just use a different colour.”
People who have been in the corporate for a very long time, and who are generally quite senior, will tell you about the old days, when they still had to do things on paper. At least now, they say, it’s digital. You might have to squint at the UI, learn crazy workarounds and become used to messages like “The operation could not be completed”, but hey, at least it’s digital! They will also ask you, with zero irony detectable: “Do you need a refresher training course, perhaps?” They’ll be genuinely willing to organise some poor soul to pull out a Powerpoint slide deck from the 80s, who will then patiently tell you, in the course of an hour, which 20 arbitrary steps you have to follow to log that you spent a day on a project.
Before joining this behemoth of a company, I worked at a small, 20-person start-up, then a slightly more established software house that built its own, custom in-house tools, and finally at a medium-sized digital advertising agency, where tools that sucked were thrown out or changed as a matter of urgency, because the creatives would simply stop using them. This came with a great deal of overhead effort. The MD of the agency and his HR sidekick would constantly hold interactive sessions with everyone in the company, to learn what they liked or disliked. There would be sessions with big papers full of sticky notes, filled with anonymous and less-anonymous recommendations from the ground up. The MD would take these ideas that came from the people seriously, creating a backlog and constantly changing the environments and tools that we worked with. Sometimes, it could feel quite disruptive, but after a while, one became accustomed to all the changes and even enthusiastic about it: because every change was done with a single intention: to make our lives, as employees in the agency, easier. To create a great employee experience.
And they got it right!
My colleagues in the corporate would say: “Who has time for that? Who has time to get all these people in a room together, who have to be billable for as much of their day as possible, into numerous feedback sessions? Who’s going to assimilate all those ideas and recommendations and make sure that they are actioned? It’s way too expensive, if you start calculating the number of hours you waste by getting all of your employees into a room, to complain about their lost crayons, when they could be out there, making money for the business.”
The corporate leaders believe they don’t have time for these kinds of things. At the same time, they’ve never calculated the amount of money that is lost through systematic inefficiencies. The amount of people they have lost because of this very unfriendly environment. They’ve never counted all the hours spent on unnecessary training sessions; on employees engaging with IT staff because they couldn’t change a password; on keeping one another out of work, because they couldn’t figure out how to book a conference room or how to log an expense. Besides the time spent, even once employees learn how to use the these tools and systems, the experience is truly disheartening and causes immense internal conflict. How can we, with our amazingly powerful brand, go out to clients and claim to be at the forefront of technological advances that will make our clients’ businesses survive the digital disruption of the next few years, when we ourselves use tools that would make any good user experience designer reach for a stiff drink?
These are two very different worlds to have experienced: the solid, steady corporate versus the chaotic, dramatic ad agency world. I keep comparing the two, and weighing up both the good and the bad.
I have sadly seen most of my truly creative, passionate, experience designer colleagues leave this corporate environment with a spring in their step. They’re relieved to be turning their backs - not on the work that we do here, or the clients that we get to engage with, or the people inside the building they get to work with, even. They’re relieved to re-join the world out there: where experiences don’t have to suck. Where change is possible. Where problems get solved. Where every crayon is valuable.
This is also why, I believe, the best experience designers will not be found in the grey offices of big corporates. They are too sensitive to their environment and the tools that they use, to survive in such a machine-like place for long. Designers need to improve the world around them. Not allowing them to do that, is guaranteed to cause conflict. The ones left over — and I suppose I have to count myself in — are the ones who have developed extreme survival tactics. We’ve grown thick skins and a kind of banner-blindness to the tools we have to use every day. I’m not sure that this makes us better or worse experience designers, but it does, over time, lower one’s expectations of what good design looks like within big organisations.
I don’t believe I’ll last here much longer. The people who will stay for a long time, are the ones who will continue the trend. First of being shocked, then surviving, then complying, and then accepting, slowly but surely, that enterprise software just sucks.