Empower design in enterprise

I’ve been thinking about it — it’s seems like a good time to design enterprise products. Enterprise is evolving and along the way, it is realizing the importance of design. Designers are taking on some of the hardest challenges in the industry to make simple, delightful products that serve customer needs. It’s a highly rewarding space, but comes with it’s own challenges.

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It is still rare to find enterprise companies that are design driven. Moreover, the technologies and legacy processes are both daunting and difficult to work with. For designers to succeed in these environments, they need to have a good understanding of things involved and be committed to push design thinking.

My first job as a designer was to design an enterprise software. Back in 2004, the design role in enterprise seemed limited to interfaces, having little influence on solving customer needs. Over the years, designers found ways to push their cause to have greater influence in the company.

Here are some of things I do to expand the horizon of design in the organizations I work.

Spend time with the technology and the business.
It is really empowering to know how things work under the hood. With a system level understanding of technology, you can guide product at a higher, conceptual level. You can negotiate better with your peers, become an active participant in engineering discussions and help implementing your designs. However, it could take you time to get a good hold of the technology. Having dabbled in virtualization and cloud storage technologies, I can vouch for the steep learning curve. Apart from reading, I would invite myself to a lot of engineering meetings, even if I was the silent observer there. Architects are good resource as they carry the holistic picture. I would initiate hallway conversations with them and often drag them to whiteboards for a quick block diagrams of the system. Geek out with your engineering, they’ll love it. Also, know your APIs and ask for ones you need.

I find business understanding equally important, if not more. Being in constant touch with product, marketing and sales teams helps. Sales does not face with design in a traditional setup but its worthwhile to bridge that gap. They are a good resource to give you information about the business goals, competitive landscape, value proposition etc. Moreover, they get first hand insights from the potential customers and have a good understanding of their needs. Use their knowledge of customer needs to prioritize your design roadmap and their customer connections as potential candidates for your user studies.

Spread design awareness and define your role.
While a large number of enterprise companies realize the importance of design, it’s still hard to find the ones that understand what designers do. Design is still mystified to most workplaces. For a long time, enterprise wanted their designers to focus just on the UI, while they figured out everything else. The expectations are pretty much still the same. Without the understanding of design, you won’t be given responsibilities where you could affect the product positively. I talk about my designs and design decisions to as many people as I can. Even better, involve them in design decisions. That way your extended team becomes the part of the design culture. Make the involvement collaborative — brainstorm, conduct design reviews, get their point of view and communicate your reasoning. Most importantly, bring everyone to focus on customer and business needs. This way you establish your role of someone who is solving customer needs, not just worrying about the UI.

Talk to users and get their voice in.
It’s usually challenging to get prime time with your product users in enterprise. You might be working with a very specific user role, that are spread across globe and don’t have too much time for you. Even if it is hard to get to your users, look for a way to get feedback. Make your executives realize the value of feedback for better design and cost savings in a longer run. In dire situations, I tag along with the product or sales team. I try to take part of their demos, proof of concepts, beta studies or whenever they interact with the potential customers. I have even traded product mockups that they can show around, for one-one time with the users. Trust me, you will have a very strong and grounded say when you understand customer perspective. More importantly, you will focus your designs around customer needs.

Choose your battles. Focus on the UX, not so much on UI.
If you are working in enterprise, you will be fighting a lot of battles. You will be constantly negotiating designs or influencing other teams. So, make good use of your energy by choosing your battles. Always weigh the user and business impact of all the things you are pushing. I just stick to the most important ones, the top three. If I am lucky to get them, I move to next three. A trick is to not focus on small UI improvements but focusing on the bigger UX issues. It’s a small price for building camaraderie while negotiating on design decisions that affect user and business immensely. I take feedback on the UI and push for UX issues in return. Don’t get me wrong, I still want to the UI to look & feel awesome. I just get my priority and focus right.

Dog food the product.
Use the product you design. Take up your user’s role and work like them. Enterprise designers loose on this opportunity often. I am not a storage administrator, I thought, and did not find it’s use until I started managing storage for my team. Get the resources you need to use your product. At VMware, we built and managed our own servers and piece of infrastructure. We even attended classes that the administrators attended. It exposed us to all kinds of real scenarios that our users would go through, including waking up at night because things started falling apart.

Be patient and you will be successful.
Lastly, as an enterprise designer, you have to be patient. There are no overnight successes — a design improvement could affect all layers of the product and thus take time. While you are providing the product direction, a large number of your designs will never see the light of the day. Not just that, the product will have long release cycles, usually up to a year or longer. That means any mistake could take a long time to change; when users have gone beyond the initial wow factor and are evaluating your product on efficiency and effectiveness. Analytics doesn’t help much unless your product is used by a large number of users and your customers agree to send telemetry data.

In these situations, enterprise designers need to design with a very thorough knowledge of the entire product context and validate them meticulously. They need to be persistent with their product vision while learning to work in an environment that hasn’t completely adopted design thinking. I can’t promise a slick portfolio with pixel perfect screenshots or a swanky app with breath taking interactions. What I can assure is that you will solve some of the most complex design challenges and talk interesting stories around them.

In summary, design has to be more aware, involved and visible in enterprise if it has to move out of UI and focus on bigger problems. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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