Creating the Killer App Starts with Killer UE/UI

One of the transformations that enterprise software companies – SaaS or otherwise – need to make is to convert the user experience of their applications such that they are far more intuitive and easy to use – far more  consumer app-like.

Most enterprise software applications have horrible UE/UI. When it comes to form v function, function has been the hands down winner through the decades. Traditionally, most companies haven’t been interested in whether or not users  “like” using a business application. More important is whether the application is better able to support the company’s required business processes.

However, as the next generation enters the workforce, these new employees have been exposed to software since the time they were children – starting with video games with great graphics and more recently consumer applications such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and iPad/iPhone and Droid applications.  The consumer software companies know that their applications must be compelling, enticing and easy to learn/use if they are going to gain acceptance in the consumer markets.

Unlike previous generations of employees who had relatively little interaction with applications/software prior to joining the workforce, this new generation of employees enters with certain expectations of how an application should look and function…and the vast majority – nearly 100% I would guestimate – of enterprise applications don’t even come close to measuring up.

Even’s UI – arguably one of the better enterprise application software companies – isn’t great. It still uses conventional master-detail lists that make the UI feel as though the data structures are poking out from the underlying database. Chatter, their new enterprise collaboration application, is a nice step forward for enterprise application software. But it still isn’t close to Sim City.

Contrary to traditional beliefs, great enterprise application UI isn’t a “nicety”; it’s a necessity. Studies have shown that a good UI can decrease the amount of time it takes new employees to come up to speed, thereby saving companies money in up front training expense. And, over time, if an application is easier/faster to use, employees can accomplish their tasks more quickly and accurately thereby generating more productivity. Finally, a good UE/UI can provide significant differentiation during the sales cycle as prospects consider issues such as broad internal use adoption – one of the primary reasons many enterprise application projects fail.

I have the opportunity to see a lot of application software companies and I’m still surprised by how poor most of the UE/UI continues to be. As a result, when I see an application with great UI, it really stands out. Last week, I was pleasantly surprised by a company that presented to me. It is a very early stage company with no venture capital as of yet and limited internal UE/UI expertise.

Realizing UE/UI is critical, they did the smart thing, they bit the bullet and invested in an outside UE design firm from the get go; the results were clearly worth it.  Since the firm did such a good job, I’m going to give them a plug. The name of the firm is UE Vision and the CEO is Sarah Kling. Sarah has produced an hour long presentation titled, “The “Killer” Screen: How One Well-Designed Screen Can Sell Your Productwhich I think does a very nice job articulating the role of UE/UI in making a company and its products a market success.

I think every application software company’s CEO and products teams would be well-served to invest an hour to listen to Sarah’s presentation. Whether you ultimately choose to use her firm or another, she provides good advice.

If I were back on the operating side again, I would take all that money I no longer have to spend on hardware (since I’d be buying cloud-based, elastic computing services) and software (open source) and I would invest it in UE/UI. I think it would be money well spent.

  • Bruce,

    I agree with your viewpoint wholeheartedly. Point about expectations of next generation around UE/UI is a valid one (not only application has to do what it is supposed to do, but make it attractive and easy to use). All business application software companies should take this into account as innovations are delivered. This is a significant shift happening in the marketplace as new workforce comes on board. Any vendor who fails to recognize this paradigm shift is at risk of becoming extinct.

    On that note, there is one company(startup from NZ) I would like to mention here, I have been impressed with and their approach to UE/UI design. Just from full disclosure prospective, I currently do not have any relationship or stake in Sonar6.

    Vish Agashe

  • Nimish Mehta

    Hi Bruce – this is a great article and right ON! I am going to call UE vision…

    I might have missed you at Tom Roche’s party.

    Nimish Mehta

  • Bruce,

    Nice to hear from someone in the VC community that gets UX.

    While I was never really satisfied with what we got done during my short time at Siebel as UX manager, it was definitely the most enlightened ERP vendor I’ve worked for (I’ve worked for Oracle & SAP too, kind of like being a doctor for a heroin addict). Partly because Tom cared about customers a bit more than Larry in general 🙂 Salesforce has the advantage that Benioff also gets it…he worked on the Mac at Apple, so at least he knows what it takes to design good products.

    If you are interested, I wrote a guest article for one of the more popular UX trade rags on this very topic about a year ago. I’d be glad to send you a full article, the link to it is here:

    The general thesis is that until ERP companies consider UX a priority, the software will continue to suck. Proctor & Gamble spends more energy on the design of a package of soap than most ERP vendors spend on their offerings. Glad to hear you advocating a change in priorities.

    If your portfolio companies need assistance, send them my way. I do consulting now.

    Jon Innes

    • John:
      Thanks for your feedback. I’d love to discuss this in more detail. I will follow up with you.