The rise of the consumer-grade enterprise product

With the advance of ambitious startups servicing the workplace, we see the birth of a new trend – the consumer-grade product. The likes of Slack and XERO have created multi billion dollar valuations by solving a business problem at scale and in style by eliminating the learning curve.

I have been working on an enterprise product for insurance and I adopted the term “consumer-grade” as it perfectly described what we’ve been aiming for. From day one we’ve been trying to create an intuitive experience for the users of our product. No manuals, no training – and as little learning curve as possible.

Of course, that is easier said than done. We’re not the end-users so we need to take steps to immerse ourselves in the experiences of others, who are often very distant from our own context. A great deal of listening and observation were necessary for us to understand where we were going.

Definition of “consumer-grade”

What do we mean when we say “consumer-grade”? In my definition it means much more than just creating a decent user experience. I use the following five pointers to help me frame the ideal and clearly communicate the concept to product stakeholders.

  • It must be easy to use by a range of people with different technical abilities. The majority of people must be able to execute a key task with no prior training. Aim for training-free where possible. You want to involve the users in the process and iterate towards the solution gradually.

  • Visual design must be used to enhance the experience. It should be nice to look at and interact with. It must use the contemporary UI conventions and heuristic principles.

  • It should make previous systems redundant and be scalable beyond one company.

  • It should have well-thought-out features and be tested with real users. Remember: 80% of people may only use 20% of features. At the same time, you can’t ignore key tasks people expect to complete. Balancing features and simplicity is a great challenge in enterprise.

  • It must incorporate extroverted, world-class branding and communication. Getting this right pays dividends. You can attract the right talent while also fostering trust with your users.

Not all of these will apply in equal portions to every enterprise product, but they provide a good starting point.


How can this help?

Here is why investing in consumer-grade products pays off in the long run because:

 
  • Higher adoption as people engage more and tell their peers

  • Improved efficiency

  • Better customer experience

 

Why is it hard to do?

If it was easy it would be the norm by now. But it is not – yet.

  • Professional software is aimed at specialists and does sophisticated things. It is usually complicated by nature. Therefore, it is usually hard to limit the number of features. It can also be hard to find access to the right user-base and test early and long enough.

  • Although they might have specialist technology teams in place, large organisations often struggle to create great products that people engage with. Agility and nimbleness are much harder to maintain at their scale, and the UX maturity and design thinking required are often simply absent.

  • Consumer-grade products are very expensive to create, promote and maintain. World-class UX and technology professionals cost money, and often opt to work for the digital giants. Startups in the space spend hundreds of millions to get it right – it would be a mistake to assume it can be done quickly or cheaply just because the underlying technology is there.

Many incumbents in industries like finance and insurance struggle to change legacy systems and make use of bold, fresh ideas when it comes to designing experiences. This is despite possessing the capital and scale to make significant contributions to change. But if they don’t innovate, they risk losing out to competitor startups who do. That said, it’s great to see big firms in industries like insurance creating incubators and partnering with young innovators to bring consumer standards to enterprise products and come up with new business models.

Conclusion

In many corporations today, you’ll find software that was designed with almost no user feedback or consulting. Over the last couple of decades, enterprise software has become synonymous with the look and feel of the early days of the internet.

But why should enterprise software be impenetrable when the apps we use daily outside of work are so simple and engaging? Design thinking can be applied to any challenge that involves people, and not just consumer-facing products. People rightly expect seamless experiences, and enterprise software is only now starting to catch up, due to pressure from ambitious startups.

In the end, consumer or enterprise facing is irrelevant. As Clayton Christensen puts it, we need “…products that do the job better and are accessible”.