Making enterprise applications more attractive

Enterprise app developers can learn a lot about design just from the myriad sites they already use. There is no reason why tech choices should hamper good design.

Collaborative feedback
Collaborative feedback on Web design ZURB

In Forrester's recent report on the changing face of application development, the research firm rightly proselytized that enterprise developers need to become "passionate about user experience" and inject design practices into application development early on.

It's a strange phenomenon that applications on consumer sites are so much more attractive and usable than those we see in the enterprise. Even popular enterprise online-only applications like leave a lot to be desired in terms of user interface design. People have become so familiar with Facebook (even with its quirks) and other consumer online services that they are much more aware of the need for easy-to-use business software.

In moving from the development of packaged software to software as a service, companies can no longer leave the "design" until the end of a project. Application developers need to build user feedback and design into the development process early on with an eye on ways to drive sales.

I spoke with Bryan Zmijewski, founder, and Dmitry Dragilev, marketing lead, at interactive design firm ZURB, which also happens to be the team behind Notable, a hugely useful online application that lets users collaboratively provide feedback on Web site designs.

Bryan provided an outline of three areas of consideration where developers can start to apply their existing software development technique in relation to design principles.

Analysis vs. instinct
The cost to initially develop enterprise software has dramatically dropped with easy access to low cost or open source tools. Which means it's becoming increasingly important for vendors creating large packaged apps to stay ahead of the innovation curve. Dmitry suggests that developers analyze site performance and understand the data, but also understand that that data doesn't tell you what to do.

Instead, application developers need to balance qualitative and quantitative information, that is, what the data says and what your customers say. For example, can you determine a root cause for why people don't use a function of application from following their comments and if so, is it a usability function or something else.

Rapid iteration of application development and deployment (fail early, fail often) has been a bit of a mantra for many Web 2.0 companies who tend to accept the risk of an application going down much more readily than enterprise developers.

One aspect that Web application development has brought to the forefront is the notion that you're not maintaining a "product"--you're managing an always-on piece of code that requires consistent attention. To that extent, testing, not just of the application itself but of design elements, can play a big role in making an application more successful.

Bryan cited a 40 percent increase of sales conversions with the addition of simple gray line in a customer's application. Sometimes you just need to experiment.

Feedback and decision making
There are a number of ways to quickly give feedback these days--collaboration tools such as wikis, blogs, and private group communications tools all offer ways to address a problem as a group.

Bryan suggests that application developers start with the problem, but don't shut it down with a solution too quickly. Instead provide a structure to engage with the appropriate people to get the best results.

Ultimately, application developers are fully capable of creating applications that are attractive and usable, but in most cases they never learned how. There is a wealth of information about application and user experience design but it's easy enough to take a look at popular online applications and see what functions work best and what drives people to keep using the apps.

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