User-friendliness is not a fad. And yes, it’s for enterprises too.

Lots of articles on user-friendliness highlight how Apple revolutionized user interface design with the iPhone, and now the design of almost everything in the world of software has improved. So for every conceivable task, you now have your choice of simple, sleek, easy-to-use apps to help you do it better, and maybe even make it a bit more fun. Great news for people looking for new indie music, or trying to share cute kitten pictures.

But one may wonder… is this whole ultra-user-friendly movement really relevant for enterprises?

I mean, with things like security, architecture, and vendor relationships to worry about, who has time to care about whether or not the software that employees use is user-friendly or not?

You might be surprised to learn just how much some enterprises have benefited from providing employees with more user-friendly products. And these companies invested in usability decades ago – yes, even long before the iPhone. Look at these two excerpts from case studies documented over 20 years ago:

As a result of usability improvements at AT&T, the company saved $2,500,000 in training expenses.
~ Bias & Mayhew, 1994

Design changes due to usability work at IBM resulted in an average reduction of 9.6 minutes per task, with projected internal savings at IBM of $6.8 Million in 1991 alone.
~ Karat 1990

Of course, nowadays it’s easy to find claims of huge benefits from an improved user experience.  For instance, in a much more recent article, Alan Langhals, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP made this comment:

The user experience drives adoption, and user adoption is an important first step toward realizing business value from big investments in enterprise systems.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

But what some don’t realize is that many large enterprises have understood the importance of usability for a very long time.  To highlight that fact, I’ve included some older references related to usability of enterprise software.  And for many of the companies mention, improved usability methods had a significant impact on their bottom line.  Let’s look at 5 areas where usability still claims to bring benefits for enterprise software, and we’ll see how support for these claims has existed for decades:

Adoption

If users don’t like your software, they’re going to find their way around using it. This can lead to cut corners, undermine the ability of the organization to adhere to efficient workflows, and inhibit timely completion of projects.  The solution?  Give your users software that they actually like using.

In a Gartner Group study, usability methods raised user satisfaction ratings for a system by 40%; when systems match user needs, satisfaction often improves dramatically.
~ Bias & Mayhew, 1994

Training costs

Complicated software takes longer to learn. Organizations that provide their users with easy-to-use software see dramatic reductions in training time. And less training time means lower training costs.

At one company, end-user training for a usability-engineered internal system was one hour compared to a full week of training for a similar system that had no usability work.
~ Bias & Mayhew, 1994

Support costs

Having software that users can figure out on their own means less calls to help desk, which can also result in significant savings.

Design changes from one usability study at Ford Motor Company reduced the number of calls to the help line from an average of 3 calls to none, saving the company an estimated $100,000.
~ Kitsuse 1991

Employee satisfaction

No one wants an organization full of disgruntled employees. But when your employees have to trudge through frustrating and difficult-to-use software to carry out their daily tasks, this can contribute to your employee’s dissatisfaction with their work. Impact of the problem is sometimes seen in unexpected ways, as the next case study demonstrates:

One airline’s IFE (In-flight Entertainment System) was so frustrating for the flight attendants to use that many of them were bidding to fly shorter, local routes to avoid having to learn and use the difficult systems. The time-honored airline route-bidding process is based on seniority. Those same long-distance routes have always been considered the most desirable. For flight attendants to bid for flights from Denver to Dallas just to avoid the IFE indicated a serious morale problem.
~ Cooper, 1999

ROI

All of the above equals better return on investment. Check out this example:

On a system used by over 100,000 people, for a usability outlay of $68,000, (the company) recognized a benefit of $6,800,000 within the first year of the system’s implementation. This is a cost-benefit ratio of $1:$100.
~ Bias & Mayhew, 1994

Companies like AT&T, IBM, and Ford Motor Company have been wisely investing in usability for decades. Since all these reports were released, the standard for the design and ease-of-use of modern interfaces has increased significantly, creating even greater potential for increases in productivity and cost savings. Which means that sticking to that old, complicated, frustrating and difficult-to-use piece of enterprise software is probably costing you more than ever.

While design trends can change, the idea of creating user-friendly software is here to stay, and the benefits have been recognized for decades. Making people happy and saving money are two things that never really seem to go out of style.

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