In 2005, YouTube was born, Google had just acquired Android, Yahoo! was a popular search engine, and there was no Netflix, Twitter, or Spotify. In that same year, I was asked to build up and manage my first visual design team. In those still formative years of the internet and hence modern user experience (UX), it was unusual – at least in Europe – to find a visual designer trained in human-computer interaction.
So, I hired what I could find: talented graphic designers, most of whom had experience creating work for print and the web, but who had no idea about designing software. In elaborate, half-day interview/workshops, I presented the fundamentals of the job, had the candidates work together on small but representative design tasks, and asked some typical interview questions, like what they hoped to earn. Interestingly, their salary expectations were almost always lower than our predefined starting range.
Despite an exhaustively transparent interview process about the day-to-day design work, the brightness of a steady gig and top-notch compensation apparently had a blinding effect on all the candidates. Once the honeymoon glow of their starting salaries faded, the reality of the job became clear. The visual designers in my team would not be unleashing their wildly creative energy on dazzling works of graphic art that would earn them enthusiastic accolades among their creative peers.
Instead, they were creating and refining a visual design system for enterprise software: stuff that requires intellectual rigor, a collaborative mindset, and undaunting attention to detail.
Many struggled with this at first, but only one designer left my team. Walking through our headquarter hallways today, I still see employees I hired almost 15 years ago. Why did they stay? The reasons are more nuanced than good pay alone.
What is enterprise UX?
In short, enterprise UX is the design of software that helps people do their jobs. The difference between enterprise and consumer UX is best illustrated by an example: an app that helps businesses monitor their trucking fleet is enterprise software; an app that helps you keep track of where you parked your car is consumer software. While some enterprise UX designers work on the internal software solutions their company uses to run its own business, many others, myself and colleagues included, work on the software that their company sells to other companies to run their business.
Significantly, 99.9% of people who use enterprise software did not buy it. Someone high-ranking at their company made the purchasing decision. This is a big and important distinction between enterprise and consumer software as enterprise users cannot usually choose another software solution. Because users are stuck with the stuff, designers and developers have an important responsibility to act as advocates for the design and usability.
Every job is different, but it’s safe to say that most enterprise designers focus either on one specific product or work on a design system that serves a range of products and technologies. A design system is more comprehensive than a style guide, in that it provides a set of components and patterns that can be reused in different combinations. It often includes descriptions and guidance regarding usage, visual design, copy, and consistency with the product portfolio.
Designers working in a specific area apply or adapt the design system to the individual needs of their product area. Examples of design systems are Google’s Material Design, Adobe Spectrum, and SAP Fiori.
Most UX design roles at big companies have delineated along the established trinity of visual design, interaction design, and user research, albeit with increasing blurring of the task boundaries. There has also been a recent proliferation of the more general, hybrid role of “UX designer.” You might also find more exotic titles, like design thinking coaches, UX evangelists, data designers, and other job titles that don’t fit into the three customary categories.
Why is enterprise UX interesting?
In enterprise UX, designers learn a lot about how complex business processes work. Depending on their area, they may dive deep into human resources, manufacturing, logistics, finance, or any of the other areas that are needed to bring products and services to people. They may look behind the scenes at factories, airports, hospitals, or warehouses.
A user researcher in our team even went down into a mine once to observe users underground. Because enterprise UX designers craft the software that companies use to run their business-critical processes in many different industries, countries, cultures, and languages, their impact is real, global and vital. Zack Frazier, Design System Operations Lead at SAP, expounds, “The scale makes enterprise UX the ultimate challenge for a designer. There are problems to be solved all around you and countless ways to improve the lives of millions. If you embrace the opportunity, you can learn a lot.”
What skills are needed?
For starters, all designers should be well grounded in the fundamentals of their trade, and that differs significantly depending on their focus. Yet these traditional skills need to be broadened to address a wide range of up-and-coming interaction possibilities, which hold infinite potential for consumer as well as enterprise scenarios. New technologies have shifted the equation of human-computer interaction to make the experience of using machines increasingly natural and enjoyable for people.
This upturns the old model of streamlining human input so it is easy for computers to understand. Designing for voice, gesture, eye movement, or brain signals requires different skills than do traditional interactions with keyboard, mouse, and touch interfaces. 3D prototyping, sound design, and coding are already becoming part of a designer’s job.
Besides hard-core UX skills, enterprise designers also need to learn what motivates product owners, developers, engineers, data analysts, finance partners, lawyers, HR consultants and board members, as they will likely deal with all of them at some stage. Thus, success on the job also requires the “4C” soft skills: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication. And as robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) soon affect the work life of just about everyone on the planet, familiarity with ethics and how to apply them to design and business tasks are unarguably needed. Designers can and should work to make RPA and AI as beneficial as possible for people.
One last advantage of a job in enterprise UX
Back to my hiring round in 2005. I asked one applicant why he wanted to leave his current position at a large, successful company. His answer was that management had directed him to trick users by hiding the lowest price for their services on their website to make it as hard as possible for customers to find the best deal. That was the final blow for him.
Today, some designers might be asked to make their product as addictive as possible or trick users into buying things they don’t really need. These kinds of dark patterns are highly unlikely in enterprise UX. Even if the usability of enterprise software is not the best, you can be sure that no one asked a designer to intentionally make it bad!
It’s up to the designers and UX professionals to bring together their entire arsenal of skills to deliver a good user experience. It’s not always easy, but if you work well and hard, your impact will be profound.
Originally published at https://www.forbes.com.