Enterprise applications are the tools of industrial-grade data movement.
They don’t just move information — say, funds — from a user’s checking account to a vendor’s checking account; this is a world where individual actions initiate dozens of subsequent functions, crossing multiple systems that may or may not talk to each other.
To design for enterprise is to design for impact and certainty. Here are a few critical points to bear in mind.
#1. Is the application experience sovereign, or transient?
The length of time your users spend on the enterprise application has a tremendous impact on how the application is to be designed.
A sovereign application is one where the users are on the application for six to eight hours a day, everyday.
A transient application is one that users may spend a few minutes a week on, like a calendaring app.
The difference in interface and product design hinges on this usage, as it determines how much the user has to learn and how much power each function will have if the user knows exactly what kind of impact they require.
#2. Enterprise applications are the domain of the expert user.
Your user is a power user.
They are intimately aware of the vast majority of the functions and are keenly sensitive to the corresponding interface elements. These users know exactly what kind of impact their interactions, configurations, and data inputs have on the rest of the system, as well as on their colleagues.
The greatest departure from consumer-based application design is that enterprise users demand and need increased data density. Airy UI with oceans of negative space are hindrances, not improvements to scannability.
As expert users, enterprise users will optimize their UI to their most productive mode of working. Every expert optimizes their space to how they work best; chefs, musicians, accountants, and certainly designers (my Sketch grid is based on a four-pixel block, while yours may be 10), alter their workspace to maximize quality and output. So movable and preferential UI components are welcome features to consider.
#3. Get rid of the work to do the work
Known as “excise,” many legacy enterprise systems require the user to do a lot of work before they can actually do their work. This may be something like navigating eight levels of folder structures, or needing several windows open to have all the relevant data at the ready, or requiring multiple logins within a session.
All of these types of actions are reflective of the user being beholden to the application as opposed to the application being a tool that is wielded by the user. Our enterprise users should be able to achieve their goals with the assistance of the application, not as an assistant to the application.
Enterprise design is the design of complicated systems, as opposed to complex systems. With all things complicated, it is the realm of experts, so insightful consideration of cause-and-effect are where the architects of the product should focus their energy.
Complex contexts are unpredictable and require a high degree of pattern recognition to understand the impact and effect of those solutions. This is antithetical to enterprise design; the stakes are too high for unpredictable consequences.
To design for enterprise is to design for confidence.