10 Interface Design Tips to Improve Your Business Application

by on 12/27/10 at 11:58 am

Anyone that has ever used a business application has likely found themselves wondering why they have to be so hard to operate. With all of the advances in technology, you’d think business apps could be designed for a better user experience. Recently, Software Advice tackled this issue in an article that outlines how business apps might borrow from consumer web interfaces to improve the user experience. The article presents ten consumer web UIs that they think would improve business applications and asks for you to give your two cents by taking a poll.

If you run a software company and you’re reading this post, do your customers a favor: invest in the best user experience (UX) designer you can find and bridge the gap between consumer web UI (User Interface) and the tired state of enterprise application UIs. The great UIs that populate the consumer web provide millions of users with visually pleasant and technically intuitive means of manipulating information. Despite the proven effectiveness of these concepts, business applications – especially enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems – don’t take advantage of them often enough. Granted, many of these themes have worked their way into these applications here and there, but we would love to see them used on a broader scale.

Why do business applications have to be so unpleasant? Well, for starters, some developers and analysts agree that the appeal of business software should reside not in its UI but its functionality, and these are the people who often have the loudest opinions on the matter. But what about everyone else? Consumer apps are on the cutting edge of improving UI because they design for the lowest common denominator (your grandma). However, most of these consumers go to work, where they are often expected to use far more complex apps. Why not make this transition from home to work more fluid for users?

1. Offer an approval button

Facebook’s Like button allows friends to quickly voice their affirmative opinion toward another friend’s post. If someone recommends a live show or posts a victory update for their sports team, friends can “Like” the statement if an actual comment isn’t really necessary. This often results in more feedback, since many users who may not write comments can simply click a button. Now, users know how many friends, and which ones, share their ideals or favorite things. This concept of immediate response has been so successful that you’ll often find users wishing there was a “Dislike” button.

A similar approach would allow businesses to quickly gather ideas and opinions about business processes from a pool of workers, and they wouldn’t necessarily have to be about the boss’s tie. Consider warehouse management, for example. For each shipment scheduled to arrive at a warehouse, each person that will be involved in the process of dealing with that shipment could immediately respond with “will be ready” or “will not be ready.” Not only would the operation improve its management of that particular situation, but it would also gain greater insight into the total preparedness of the warehouse over time as more feedback is gathered.

2. Use a suggestion box for search

You have probably noticed that Google provides a list of suggested searches that autocomplete your search as you type. These suggestions are mostly culled from the terms that other users have searched for most often in the past. Once the search is complete, it also suggests other ideas that you may be interested in or may have intended to search for in the first place. This feature not only reduces the time spent searching but can also introduce pertinent information into the search process.

These concepts can also make searches through business applications more efficient. Each user would benefit from having personal search histories stored in a login account. A floor manager that generally uses the system to search for information about specific shop floor activity can have that information suggested immediately, while an executive that often searches for higher-level data or likes to view search results through different filters can receive different suggestions.

3. Show interface controls on demand

Remember when you had to reload the page to see the comment that you just made on a YouTube video? Wasn’t that annoying? Sure, it’s not very difficult to simply reload the page to see your comment, but the overwhelmingly negative reaction to YouTube’s antiquated comments structure suggested that the average user has come to expect certain things from a user interface. YouTube eventually got wise and took action to overhaul that structure; if only ERP software developers would do the same.

Most business application users who frequently input a great deal of information know what it feels like to work with seemingly unresponsive software. You would at least expect your applications to keep up with your own speed, which is why it can be so frustrating to wait for software to reload a page just to take in new data. The inclusion of AJAX in future UIs would make this process more efficient and would be closer to the experience that most users naturally expect.

4. Offer news feeds

Twitter feeds and Facebook news feeds allow users to see the aggregated account of everything that all their friends are doing: Who’s going out tonight? Is anyone going to the same place? Who’s watching this viral video? In a sense, these feeds are a bit like the “Have you seen this video yet” emails of old, but on steroids. Now, users are sharing plans, ideas, and content not just with the friends they think will be interested, but with all of their friends, relatives, and acquaintances, allowing everyone to learn about events and topics that they may have missed otherwise.

As a business grows, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain good communication. In the largest enterprises, it is all but impossible to know what other employees are up to. Implementing more feed-like information streams into business applications would allows users to subscribe to updates that are most important to them. It could let them a salesperson know when a customer’s order has shipped, or it might let a controller know when a major receivable was collected.

5. Offer a mobile version

The iPhone and its iOS was the first mobile phone to really nail the user interface for mobile applications. It made complex application functionality accessible on a small form factor by distilling the UI down into its most critical elements and eliminating complexity. Today, everyone from a three-year old child to an 80 year old grandfather can use an iPhone.

Mobile devices are of course used widely in many industries and most business applications are rolling out support for the current generation of mobile technology. However, we think there is an even bigger opportunity to adopt the design concepts of these mobile devices within web or Windows UIs on laptop and desktop computers. Take the simplicity we appreciate on our mobile devices and integrate that into the desktop UI.

6. Use interactive charts to display information

Mint provides visually-pleasing graphs and pie charts that allow users to dig deeply their financial information through a number of categories. The interface essentially helps users “interact” with their spending in ways that most financial presentations never do. When viewing a pie chart, for example, users can not only see a broad report of categorized spending, where each slice represents bills, leisure, mortgage, etc., but can also click on each slice to see a more detailed report for each category. This is the very definition of intuitive: if users see something they’d like to know more about it, they can just click on it.

Business applications have been providing information through sortable filters for decades, but the user interface often fails to be user-friendly. This often leads to companies training only the few necessary people who will be accessing the software frequently. However, some operations, in an attempt to improve labor management, would like to motivate other employees by giving them an understanding of how their individual efforts have a direct effect on revenue, productivity, etc. A simpler interface will allow even the most IT-inexperienced workers to access this information.

7. Offer custom alerts

Social media management tools like Sprout Social allow users to create Twitter keyword searches that will constantly scan the Twitterverse and provide up-to-the-minute results on a frequent basis. Also, many people use Google Alerts to accomplish the same goal across the entire Internet landscape. If a certain keyword isn’t trending yet, these automated searches can alert users when others do start talking about it, displaying the tweets with updated trend statistics or linking to the desired web page.

Similar to our desire to see information streams or feeds in business applications, we’d like to see more user-definable alert mechanisms. Every business user should have the opportunity to define custom alerts. When a certain deal closes, let me know. When a delivery is received, let me know. When receivables exceeds a threshold, let me know. You get the point. Alerts exist in many applications, but we’d like to see more simplicity and flexibility in setting them up for a wider range of business users.

8. Add vibrant colors

Most people who use Twitter or Facebook probably couldn’t explain exactly why they find the site visually appealing. Some users might not even feel that the sites are appealing in the first place. However, most users probably wouldn’t say that these sites and others that they visit several times a day are depressing. Many of them probably would say that about some of the old Microsoft business applications they use, what with the absurd preponderance of fields and one gray screen after another.

There has been an ongoing argument over whether or not business application UIs should be “sexier.” Everyone agrees that functionality should take priority over design, but that hasn’t stopped several people from arguing that these UIs could take some visual cues from the consumer web. If you want users to like your software, use basic color theory to keep their spirits high.

9. Use contextual navigation

When Microsoft incorporated “The Ribbon” into its 2007 release of Word, the concept had many people talking. This ribbon replaced all the old menus and toolbars with a context-sensitive tab that changes its options to match the specific actions you are trying to fulfill. If the user begins working on a table, the ribbon shifts its options to display the tools and functions needed to complete a table. If the user inserts an image into the document and clicks on it, the ribbon changes again to provide image tools.

The same features could easily be applied to business applications. When a warehouse manager deals with picking and putaway, a different set of tools are required from those needed for receiving and shipping. If the inventory picking module displays only the functions needed for picking rather than all of the tools provided by the warehouse management application, the software will be in sync with the user’s current focus. This would reduce the amount of time wasted scrolling through long lists or scanning a bunch of unnecessary tabs.

10. Start A/B testing

Often, e-commerce sites like Amazon.com test potential changes to their site design by going live with a number of different design options and comparing the success of each one. Wal-Mart.com, for example, might roll out two different versions of their home page, one version with category tabs on the top and the other version with tabs on the side. After funneling different visitors through both versions, they can compare which one got more activity on the tabs. Obviously, these are consumer oriented tests, aimed at seeing which designs most often lead to purchases or whatever the end goal may be.

However, consumers aren’t the only subjects that could be tested in this manner. SaaS deployments can make these multivariate testing processes possible for business applications, yet few seem to be jumping at the chance to try it out. Consider medical billing software, for example. If members of the billing staff at a medical practice were to test different UI designs when checking in patients or coding diagnoses, they could potentially discover a more efficient way of doing business. Most companies constantly rethink their business processes in order to improve efficiency and maximize productivity. Why shouldn’t they do the same with their software?

So, those are just a few of our ideas. Now, we want to hear from you. Vote in the poll below and let us know what you think. If you have an idea of your own to share or an example of one of these ideas in action, use the comments section below.

About Derek Singleton:
Derek Singleton is an ERP market analyst for Software Advice, a free online resource that presents reviews and comparisons of manufacturing software. For any questions related to this article, feel free to contact derek@softwareadvice.com.

2 Responses to “10 Interface Design Tips to Improve Your Business Application”

  1. Allan Ebdrup

    Jan 25th, 2011

    I’m not sure A/B testing is such a good idea for business applications, having buttons/navigation vary each time you use the application might lead to unhappy users. I think the contextual navigation and contextual in-page help might be the most important. That’s what I focus on in my project at http://obsurvey.com

  2. Cameron Reid

    Feb 4th, 2012

    Thanks for the post. Here’s a tool the lets you create your apps in minutes, without coding. Just Point-and-Click http://www.caspio.com/online-database

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