The user-unfriendliness of enterprise apps

Khoi Vinh, a web designer at the New York Times, observes that business software applications “are some of the least friendly, most difficult systems ever committed to code.” Why? One of the reasons, he says, is that, unlike programs aimed at the consumer market, enterprise software:

doesn’t benefit from the rigor of a wide and varied base of users, many of whom will freely offer merciless feedback, goading and demanding it to be better with each new release. Shielded away from the bright scrutiny of the consumer marketplace and beholden only to a relatively small coterie of information technology managers who are concerned primarily with stability, security and the continual justification of their jobs and staffs, enterprise software answers to few actual users. Given that hothouse environment, it’s only natural that the result is often very strange.

His critique prompts a flood of incisive comments from the makers and users of enterprise applications. It’s all well worth reading.

13 thoughts on “The user-unfriendliness of enterprise apps

  1. Anonymous

    Nick, the goal of enterprise software is to run enterprises more efficiently not to have users go ooh and aah. If the latter happens, so much the better. I wrote about UIs on my blog last week…we are about to go through UI chaos as mobile devices proliferate …Google has shown us minimalist concepts actually work…user generated data has steadily shrunk as machines, devices, sensors generate more corporate data…

    lots of conflciting dimensions to be considered in UI design, not just “prettiness”

  2. sc

    A typical software evaluation process starts with a definition of requirements, scoring of tools with respect to the requirements defined, invitation for proposals and probably a poc implementation before the purchase.

    Documenting usability requirements is rather subjective and isn’t understood well by people who traditionally evaluate software (typically enterprise architects – who are more concerned about stability and architectural aesthetics – in part, with good reason)

    Also, when comparing usability and stability, the need for stability overrides usability – there is no workaround for an unstable system, whereas a low usability system has workarounds. As enterprise tools have evolved, and stability is now taken for granted, and ops managers who ultimately will use the software are increasingly getting involved in IT decisions, usability will begin to be a differentiator in the next generations of enterprise software. This is a good differentiator for a product manager to keep in mind as well, since a lower training budget for an enterprise customer will mean that this software is of higher value to the customer.

  3. Anonymous

    ok, Nick…semantics…no sophisticated vendor is going to use the word pretty like I did but in design sessions that is what it often gets down to…so most of admire MS Vista’s Aero UI …but at what cost? – more memory, more user time to find old faithful features…

    capturing data accurately, once at source has long being a design principle in automating business processes. Personally I get a lot more excited when I see a vendor showing me scanners,bar code guns, sensors etc which capture data automatically. I am sure you been to some countries where at point of sales clerks still manually enter what you are buying. Want to give that store clerk a better UI or replace that step in the process with a scanner?

  4. Rick Sherman


    One of the primary reasons that business software applications are some of the least friendly is precisely that most often the selection process is based on an evaluation checklist. The more features the higher you score. And since every technical user wants yet another feature the software becomes “bloatware” after a while. Microsoft Windows and Office are prime examples of products that have gone way beyond what most people really use and gotten more confusing along the way.

    I have worked in the data warehousing and business intelligence (BI) markets for over twenty years and I have witnessed BI tools evolve (?!) from technology targeted for specific tasks to BI software suites that do everything an IT person or a business “power user” can dream of. The problem for these software vendors is that business people have voted on Microsoft Excel as their BI tool rather than what the BI industry offers. The fact that customers (who are business people) are using spreadsheets instead of “real” BI tools reveals how difficult the BI software suites must be.

    Rick Sherman

  5. Arvino


    Some software probably being designed to be “obvious”, intuitive, simple to use since day 1, while some other software probably comes from the “cluttered” mind.

    The end result: what you just talk about — simple vs. complicated software.

    It is unfortunate that the process of designing “enterprise software” involve a very “structured”, “rigid”, “well planned” — aka “BORING” — process and mechanism. The end result: a very structured, rigid, well planned, boring software system as well.

    On the contrary the consumer software coders try to build something that express fun, joy, excitement, simplicity and “power of the web” at the same time. The end result: powerful software that is obvious and simple (or at least “simpler” to use).

    I guess different “mindset” and different “culture” behind the software design and creation process produces the SIGNIFICANTLY different result.

    Software in the hand of great few individuals tend to be extremely powerful, friendly and easy to use. (It’s a picasso!). Software in the hand of “bunch comittee of ‘EXPERTS'” tend to be extremely mediocre, rigid and boring. (It belongs to a bunch of committee of comittee of ‘EXPERT’ whom report to another bunch of committee of comittee of ‘EXPERT’ who we don’t know — and they also don’t even know each other).

    The core DNA of the thought, idea and process seems define the end result that the market got. A picasso becomes a picasso. An “anonymous mediocre” becomes a “mediocre”. All is defined since day 1 the company product, culture and team is created.

    My two cents. :-)

  6. pwb

    Check for the real reason for the state of enterprise software: the purchase decision makers are not the users.

    “the goal of enterprise software is to run enterprises more efficiently”

    No, the goal of enterprise software is to get sold into the enterprise.

  7. Bummer Han

    Well put, business software vendors always OPUD. beware the ROI and TCO pitch.

    the successful consumer software benefits from scale, magnitude-higher economies of scale (in the 1,000,000s rather than 1000s)

    plus its always simple do-it-my-way-or-the-highway functionality for under $9.99 (or read a clutter of unrelated advertisements and get it FREE! ) you never expect the software maker to get that piece of software to talk to your other accounting software on your PC right?

    in the enterprise, the focus shift 180 deg.

    but enterprise software too come under quite heavy fire by the user, I think stems from the fact that most require heavy organization-specific customizations many are not code-safe and under-tested. so you be glad you can get 5 users to do half day testing for the IT department.

  8. Thomas Otter


    Good to see you picking up on this. My two cents. Firstly I’m not a UX expert, just an interested amateur.

    The best UI is no UI at all. Enterprise Software is often about automation, or the trendier term, lights out processing. People should be selling, making, building, talking and thinking, not entering data. A design principle at the core of the best enterprise software is “how can we make this happen without typing and clicking?”

    That said, enterprise UIs could be a whole lot better. And if you look to what is up with Flex, voice, widgets, Duet, and even wii hands, you will see that there is big change here in enterprise land. Things are changing fast. (just google SAP Wii hands, or head over to youtube and watch the SAP teched demos)

    Thirdly, and most significantly, design as a discipline and a profession is building momentum. This brings a welcome focus, and dramatically improves the interaction. This is a huge shift. And I’m optimistic it will make things a whole lot better.

    There is still much to learn, but having spent 15 years in presales I have had lots of merciless feedback on UI but I’ve also met lots and lots of happy users.

    To all those brilliant UI designers out there who reckon they can do better. Let’s lock you in a room with all the beanbags and lattes you want, but we will only let you out when you have designed an engaging Polish payroll User experience!-) This stuff is hard. But bringing the best experiences from the consumer space to the enterprise is goodness. I, for one, welcome it.

  9. timswan


    Design is not about “ooh and aah”, or even being pretty. Design is about understanding the problem and creating a solution. “Pretty” is often just the end result of a successful solution.


  10. tartle

    When I was an IT Manager working between the enterprise users and the software customisers I spent time talking with the user base on what would be their ideal system.. using a Maslovian approach to the needs determination we designed and implemented a system that was effective at a personal and group level, and was efficient at an enterprise level. When a large enterprise system was adopted globally we had to go back ten steps and recruit more staff to input and QA the data!! This happened everywhere and the business thought we were more efficient as the KPI’s were not good enough to pick up the losses that were not eliminated… maybe that is why enterprise systems do not show up as truly productive?

    But the enterprise th

  11. Paul Wallis


    Writing an enterprise application takes a while. I should know, I’ve spent the last six years doing just that, so I’m very interested in this debate.

    The main design goal was to make the software fully scalable. In order to make the User Interface as simple as possible I had to invent a completely new modelling technology, which took two years to develop.

    So when Thomas Otter says, “This stuff is hard”, I have to agree with him.

    In the latest post on my blog I discuss ‘Enterprise Applications and User Interfaces’ and show a couple of screenshots of the user interface in question.

    Hopefully they give an idea of what can be done as far as making enterprise applications more user friendly.

    The software’s purpose is to enable business and IT to speak a common language and to easily show and value the relationships between business services, data flows and IT resources.

    Cheers, PJW

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