It’s a cool spring Wednesday morning in Minnesota when I get a meeting invite from my boss for the following day. He is the CTO of a booming mid-sized start up company, so typically I am the one setting up our meetings. I think back about the past couple of weeks. Did I miss a deadline? Did I piss someone off? No matter how much I like my boss, or how good I think I am at my job, I can’t help but feel a tiny bit like my name just got called over the P.A. system in an elementary school to head directly to the principal’s office.
Meeting time. I am ready to pitch, but before I get into the details I ask him. “Before I get into these items, do you have anything big for me today? Is there a project on fire somewhere I can help out with?” He shakes it off, “no, no, you do a good job at keeping us talking on as regular schedule as my schedule allows. The real impetus for this meeting is (wait for it…): is that I wanted to say thank you. Thank you for growing a team in a way that does not add drama to our development process. You’ve always been open to feedback, taken your lumps with style and kept moving forward and trying new things. So thank you. The function your team brings to our organization is a valuable one to have.” Once I regain consciousness, I tell him how much I appreciate that and head into my updates trying to hold back a smile…
At the time of this conversation, I had been in this role for roughly 9 months. I was hired to bring UX into an organization that, up until this point, did not have a UX team. They knew they “needed it” but the journey had not been easy. My boss recognized the difficulties I had encountered, and like many others, he likely assumed my job sucked. But I’ve found that working in enterprise UX doesn’t suck at all.
In this article, we’ll find five reasons that enterprise UX can be very rewarding.
Why Work in Enterprise?
First, I’ll be the first to admit that enterprise UX is difficult. In fact, infiltrating an engineering-focused organization that celebrates complexity can feel like stepping into the Colosseum for someone trying to simplify things for the customer—expect gladiatorial level wounds and stitches.
But let’s face it, that’s UX in general right? More than any other area of UX, working in an enterprise environment provides the opportunity to change the world. Too strong? I don’t think so. Here’s why: in virtually every other space, users vote with their dollars. In enterprise UX, they rarely get to vote at all. Someone, somewhere up the food chain, probably in charge of some technology expansion budget, makes those choices for them. They don’t have the option of using a different HR database, or payroll system or whatever else. They need an advocate to vote for them! To make their lives a little easier—dare I say even make their jobs more fun?
For example, when people download a free trial version of say, Balsamiq or Axure and don’t like it, they don’t buy it! But what happens if someone gets a new job as a HR generalist and hates their payroll system? Nothing. They are forced to use it by sheer organizational inertia. It is highly unlikely that anyone will even ask them when the next budget cycle rolls around and the organization renews the contract. Let’s give that HR generalist a voice!
Enterprise UX is the Louisiana purchase of the software world—an incredibly vast and largely unmapped territory of huge tools, even suites of tools, that need taming. Like any wilderness, adventurers and explorers can help map this land for weekend vacationers (or in this case, workers) to enjoy.
5 Great Things
Working in enterprise UX often gets a bad rap: too much red tape, too complex, too slow, etc. However, it also has a unique set of rewards. This is why working in enterprise UX doesn’t suck.
1.) Measurable impact on systems users typically hate (the bar is low)
Because these dinosaur systems have been around since the Jurassic period, they were likely designed by software engineers simply providing views into a vast array of system objects. This method probably makes total sense to other engineers, but usually not to end users who don’t particularly care about what database table a piece of information lives in.
In many cases, literally no one has ever thought about how the users think about the system or tasks they need to perform. Making even incremental changes, say by implementing a new feature that actually ‘makes sense’ to users, can have a positive influence on their day to day jobs. But this is just the beginning. Enterprise UXers are the change agents that, over time, actually start to steer the entire UX of the product down a better path.
2.) Swing big bats (healthy budgets)
Most enterprise products are built by large- to mid-sized orgs that are starting to get the message that their users want their day-to-day tools to be as slick as the products they use outside the office. As a result, many of these orgs are stepping up their investments in design.
Yay! They might not totally “get UX” but they do get that their “customers” have less time and tolerance for the widening gap between the nicely designed products elsewhere in their lives and the systems they use in the office. This is a good thing for UXers because big companies know they need help but don’t know exactly what it costs to get there. We can help inform and spend those healthy budgets on tools and techniques that will really make a difference.
3.) Wide lanes (new to everyone = no prescribed method)
Along with those unknown budgets are ready-to-be-defined practices. Agency and corporate environments can be known for their less-than-agile processes. Since UX (or at least increased focus on UX) is the new kid in town within many enterprise orgs, there usually isn’t a ton of process around it.
This is good because definition and process is ready for a guiding hand! It’s the perfect opportunity to rifle through a whole stack of new approaches and see what fits best with the organization’s culture and values… Even better, no one really knows what to expect anyway, so failure goes largely unnoticed. Just try something different next time. It is better to be transparent about the misses anyway.
4.) We can be royals (become an accidental leader)
Companies are experiencing more threats to the status quo than ever before. Inability to innovate, insane competition, a constantly and drastically shifting marketplace—it seems stability is out of fashion. Simply put, the way companies used to think about product development and other processes is no longer working. Business schools are still teaching concepts founded in the industrial revolution.
This is where the enterprise UXer comes in. Design thinking has been said to be the scientific method for this century. A product doesn’t just need to “do” what it promises; people need to like how it does it. Heck, they need to love the whole company, philosophy, brand, and all that jazz. But design thinking is a new method, and so the enterprise UXer has an opportunity to become a pioneer. It’s a worthwhile area to pioneer in as well—infusing design thinking into an organization not only helps that organization maintain more user-friendly tools, but also leads the business to the extremely profitable “thinking tactics” we call UX.
5.) Viva la resistance! (being a cultural revolutionary is kinda fun)
Now, granted, this isn’t for everyone. The sometimes mind-numbing complexity of these huge systems should not be taken lightly. But some folks like to geek out on huge challenges, and want to make a difference beyond designing shiny-but-vanilla websites. For them, it’s a calling. And they’d do rather well in enterprise UX. After all—who hasn’t had a run-in with a painfully boring, antiquated software system?
It’s time for change. Beautiful brochure sites, ecommerce, web apps, they are well trodden with UX attention. The final frontier of user experience lies stubbornly in enterprise systems; the field is bursting with opportunity. Let’s refocus our attention to the untouched, the systems left behind.
Want to learn more about ways to excel and enjoy enterprise UX? Here are a few places to get started:
- Wired Magazine’s excellent article on the paradigm shifts taking place in enterprise UX.
- Angela Schmeidel Randall’s blog post explaining how to calculate return-on-investment on UX usability projects.
- This great article on Dice’s blog, digging into the reason enterprise organizations like Cisco are looking for new grads to take on their big challenges.
- This piece (also from Dice) about IBM’s recent decision to double down on UX.
- Harvard Business Review’s article on the rise of UX leadership.
- UXPA Magazine’s look into enterprise software and its many challenges.