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I recently gave a talk at about “designing for work”. This made me think about what the biggest challenges are when designing business applications, work tools and expert users.

I have identified 6 UX design challenges that are relevant to this area – and how each one can be approached.

Challenge no. 1: Complexity of the work domain
Few domains are as complex as business domains. The amount of data is overwhelming, the requirements are vast, and the workflows have unnumbered variations. Yet the goal is to design a simple, intuitive interface without clutter – but with all the functionality available. Many times this seems impossible at first. But in order to achieve it you need to go through careful analysis, prioritization and set high demands for the design.

Making work tool simple despite of domain complexity is really not any different than striving for simplicity in other areas, it just tends to be more difficult.

To me a key approach is prioritization of everything in the domain and user analysis. This means prioritizing users, each of the user’s tasks, all tasks combined and then create scenarios for the most important tasks. The initial design only focuses on the most important scenarios, thus letting me get to a clear and simple design for these – and not everything. After this, the remaining functionality is typically added as supporting functions in less visible places in the interface – and not cluttering the design.

Challenge no. 2: All companies have different work processes
This challenge is very often called out by my clients, and it is not always an option for them to dictate one way for their users to do their work. As a result, many work UI’s depend largely on customization and tend to include too many alternative options for doing things.

Accepting that all ways to do a specific job are equally good does not make it possible to create a good UX design. I therefore insist on identifying 1 (or perhaps 2) ideal workflow scenarios that are “rather typical”, plus a few variations to the ideal workflows. The design is primarily done for the ideal workflow, and only after this has been completed, the variations are worked into the design – in the form of special settings, views or product versions.

 

If certain workflows are seen as better and more effective than others, the application will actually suggests these workflows to the users, inviting them to adapt the way to work. It is my opinion that in many cases, this makes the user experience smoother and more intuitive, which compensates for a changed workflow.

Challenge no. 3: Users are not the buyers (and buyers are not users)
Most business software is bought by management, and the ones using it don’t have a say in what gets bought and why. This means that when we design business software with the end-user in mind, we are not considering the buyers. And vice versa – if we design for the buyers (IT managers for example), we ignore most of the people who will actually use the system every day.

I believe the end user is still the most important one to think of when designing the application, because he or she uses it every day. So the primary personas are typically the frequent end users, but the decision makers should also be included in the user analysis, for example as secondary personas. It is important that their goals and preferences are met, even though these differ from the ones for the end user.

Challenge no. 4: Novice users vs. experienced users
Business users often become expert users, because they use the applications so intensely. Novices need the UI to be self-explanatory, helping them learn the application, going through processes step-by-step etc. There are certain UI patterns that will make novice users feel that their new application is easy to use. But as soon as the user has learned the system well they become experts. And then they seek completely other things in the UI: Speed, keyboard access, few clicks, quick typing techniques, bulk actions etc.

There is really no other way than take both user groups into consideration when designing. Sometimes the experts can even be favored a bit over the beginners because more users are experts, and for longer time. But neither groups can be ignored, so the user analysis should be sure to include both user types and the UI should be designed for both. This means that it should appear intuitive and non-cluttered, but at the same time be completely optimized for fast-paced work, including keyboard use, shortcuts, bulk actions and other expert behavior. A hard goal to achieve but nonetheless what you need to strive for.

Challenge no. 5: Expert users
Expert users can be a challenge in themselves. One reason is that they are harder to “get” than beginners, simply because their knowledge and experience in the domain is so big. It takes longer time to learn to understand their behavior and analyze their needs.

At times they tend to hold on to existing ways of working and request designs that are similar to existing systems (that you are going to replace). I have often experienced that expert users want certain designs that appear completely illogical to me – seen from a common sense perspective. And then, when you dig a bit deeper into this, you discover that they are based on “old” work habits that could improve and become smarter.

I think the best way to deal with the expert users is to do in-depth interviews and try to get “behind” what they say they want and focus on their goals, not their suggestions. This means not accepting their requests as “hard requirements” but instead analyze what they want to achieve in the end.

Challenge no. 6: Standard usability tests won’t do

A standard usability test is simulating a beginner meeting an application for the first time and can reveal shortcomings regarding learnability, understanding of the overall concept, appropriateness of language, usability of interactive elements etc. Standard usability tests are not at good testing whether experienced users are having an effective, satisfying user experience when doing their work for many hours a day.

My preferred way to deal with this challenge is to arrange a “follow-up” user study after the design has been implemented and used for 2-4 weeks. In this way, the users has started to become experts and know their way around the system. The study includes observing common work tasks combined with interviews where the user evaluate their experience. The users will tend to focus on efficiency, speed of work, sense of control and overview at this point.