Business users are not customers who want technology to entertain or distract them. Instead, they want the most efficient way to complete a task that must be completed using your business’s dedicated web application. In many cases, employees are working remotely or in the field, thus their primary concern is a web application that is responsive, accurate, engaging, relevant, and free of bugs. To meet these expectations and build the most effective web application for your business, you must understand UX design (or user experience design).
Why UX Design Matters.....
With business web applications, employees will use them because they have to use them to complete their job. This means that even if the application design is flawed, and they need to click dozens of times to complete a single task, they will do it.
Contrast this with consumer application design, in which users have a choice of entertainment games or social media tools to use, and if they don’t enjoy the experience of using something, they will delete it. So, we can see where UX design is critical to the successful adoption and profitability of consumer-facing applications. As for business web applications, UX design can enhance worker efficiency and productivity, which leads to profitability benefits for the company.
Unfortunately, not all businesses are aware of these internal benefits of web applications. As such, business web application design is often neglected in favor of client-facing design elements. Think of any business that has a modern, clean looking website with a clunky intranet that is the bane of employees’ work lives.
Even when the application design itself looks nice, web applications can fail to deliver a positive UX if they don’t actually meet the needs of users. Successful application design is twofold, then: business web applications must meet the needs of the business or employees and must be intuitive or pleasant to use. So here’s how to succeed:
Successful UX Design for Business Web Applications
Every type of business web application has the same starting place when it comes to enhancing the user experience: You must know the users to know what they need.
That’s simple advice, but it’s often ignored by developers who are more excited about tinkering with back-end elements. When business web applications are designed without a sound understanding of user needs, they are likely to miss the mark.
There are many user research approaches for UX designers to better know the users, such as:
- User interviews – Interviewing employees who will use the application daily, so you understand their workflow, preferences, general attitudes, and pain points
- Shadowing – Watching users complete tasks using the existing system to best understand their workflow, problems, and desires
- Surveys – Surveying a broad audience of potential users to get a big-picture idea and see patterns that can inform the personas that represent user groups
- Personas – Developing characteristics, qualities, and preferences of users, which can guide user requirements and development
- Card sorting – A patterning task that indicates how users perceive information as related, which leads to a web application structure that is commonly understood
- Usability testing – Testing the usability and user experience of a prototype, to ensure the design meets the user’s needs and can be used as intended
What designers typically uncover as they explore the needs of users is that needs, desires, and goals vary across groups. There may be users who will interact with the web application daily and those that will be occasional users, users who are very tech-savvy and likely to get it right away versus those that struggle after redesigns and will need more hand-holding. For the designer, the needs of user groups must be balanced so that, for example, power users can be on-boarded quickly then left to perform their tasks efficiently, while users that need more onboarding have enough time for training and in-app resources to refresh learning.
Only once you have a thorough understanding of the application users, their needs, and the overall effect on the application, can you move forward with the design. Moving ahead without a full understanding of these things means that there’s a higher risk that the application design will flop. According to IEEE’s article, “Why Software Fails,” badly defined requirements are one of the primary reasons software applications fail.
Business Web Application Design Process
There are many ways to develop web applications, but the agile approach is a favorite, and for good reason. Agile web application development produces a user interface more quickly, which can be validated and aligned with employees along the way, unlike Waterfall design, which is quite rigid. By the time there’s an interface to test in Waterfall, it’s late in the development process and flaws that are uncovered are things users may just have to live with since it’s more cost-prohibitive to make changes at this stage. There’s a higher risk of poor user experience with the Waterfall methodology. With Agile, since users are involved in the process and development happens more rapidly, there’s a greater degree of buy-in from end-users.
UX designers typically start out with some type of sketch. The goal is to establish the way that information relates conceptionally, often using a whiteboard or pen and paper. After generating sketches, designers review them to determine whether everything is captured in an appropriate manner.
The next step is usually wireframing, which is like an architectural blueprint for the application. It contains all the information needed to build the application in an organized, hierarchical manner.
Clients and end-users may react to sketches or wireframes. But keep in mind that it can be difficult for those who aren’t trained in application design to understand what they’re looking at when viewing a wireframe or a sketch.
Once there’s a working wireframe that represents the main navigation and structure, UX designers will build a prototype. There might be a prototype for everything or just for a single feature to test the direction of development.
The goal of a prototype is to get a visual representation of information and have end-users react to it. At this phase in development, conducting initial rounds of usability testing is a wise idea, because the prototypes can be tweaked much easier than a completed application.
Assuming that testing turns up some elements that need refinement, UX designers then go back to sketching and wireframing, complete another prototype mockup, and test again. If users are pleased with the prototype, then application development can proceed to the next phase.
With application design and development, there are several ways that designers can ensure that end-user needs are met. Top of mind is simplicity; the simpler an interface is, the easier it will be for all employees, regardless of their skill or comfort level. Simplicity must be balanced with functionality. An application that’s too simple won’t actually do anything meaningful. This is a balance of what’s called Function Allocation, as indicated in the ISO’s definition of User-Centered Design. Functional Allocation refers to finding a balance between how much the systems and the users do and think.
Accessibility is important, so designers should follow guidelines for accessibility. They should also build out robust help features and deliver meaningful feedback through dialog boxes, error messages, and other features. This way, users will know if there’s a problem, and if so, they can take steps to troubleshoot.
Efficiency is a top goal of business web applications, so designers should keep this top of mind as well. An efficient user interface allows users to complete tasks as quickly and neatly as possible. This allows employees to work efficiently rather than getting bogged down in the intricacies of a system.
Applications that are clunky or inefficient to use harm a business in multiple ways. Employees may put off completing certain tasks that require the business web application because they dread going in there. They may fall behind in important areas because job functions take longer than anticipated. They may also suffer low motivation and morale that comes from using technology that is inherently frustrating.
UX designers can enable efficiency through keyboard shortcuts (borrowing from commonly understood shortcuts when possible, rather than inventing their own special shortcuts). A robust search function and clarity in things like navigation further help users be efficient.
Personalization aids efficiency and enables users to customize the application to meet their needs. Examples of personalization include reordering features, changing the color or icon associated with certain elements, defining their own shortcuts, and custom filters or headers.
Two users from the same department may go about their work differently, by starting a task at different points or prioritizing different pieces of information. When they can set personal shortcuts or reorder features to express their personal preferences, they’ll be able to work faster.
Aesthetics is an important consideration, as employees will feel better when they’re looking at an attractive interface — and one they will be using every day, multiple times a day. While a pleasant look and feel may seem less important here than it would be with public-facing web applications, nice aesthetics do affect the UX and thus the satisfaction of stakeholders and users. The user interface can also have an effect on emotional well-being and performance.
Moving through the application design process it is important for designers to listen to feedback and integrate what is important. Users react poorly when new technology is thrust upon them from above or outside. Not all feedback will be valid and not all feedback can be acted upon. However, when users feel like someone is listening, they will feel like someone cares. As a result of being listened to, users will become invested in the design process. When it is time to test a design or be trained on the finished web application, users will respond in a positive manner because they were incorporated in the process. So, there are also political implications for following a sound web application design process.
- Even when the application design itself looks nice, web applications can fail to deliver a positive UX if they don’t actually meet the needs of users.
- A successful UX design for business web applications should balance business goals, employee needs (or ease of use), and modern design.
- What designers typically uncover as they explore the needs of users is that needs, desires, and goals vary across groups.
- There are many ways to develop web applications, but the agile approach is a favorite, and for good reason.
- User testing done on time saves much capital and development time.
- Efficiency is a top goal of business web applications, so designers should keep this top of mind as well.
- A complex business application development involves many moving parts, and UX ties it all together.
Abdul has helped over 40 Fortune 500 companies make informed user-centered design decisions through evidence-based user research and UX best practices. As an Adjunct Professor, Abdul has taught in DePaul University’s graduate UX programs and for nine other universities.