Product and Engineering, Design and UX

How to Design Enterprise Apps for Humans

I love that consumer technology is evolving everyday. Every time I log into my favorite apps, they've improved, which is great! But the enterprise space tells a different story. Most of the tasks business leaders need to perform on a daily basis—analyzing billions of rows of data, creating revenue reports for managers, performing complex queries to gain business insights—are technically difficult. Yet the tools at our disposal for these tasks are outdated and clunky. You can’t Google this month’s business summary on your iPhone five minutes before your meeting.

Why is that? We should expect more from enterprise technology.

I joined ThoughtSpot in 2013 with a “beginners mind.” I wanted to build an enterprise analytics app for humans—for the everyman, not for data analysts. I wanted to build a powerful app that would help someone do their job faster and easier, not one that would overwhelm them with sophistication. As we’ve built our product the past two years, we’ve borrowed a lot from consumer app design.

Here are my four biggest take-aways for designing human-scale enterprise apps.

 

1. There’s no finish line to search.

When we use apps today, we think, we wonder, we ask, and we expect an answer. This is the way our brain works. You type something, you get something. That’s it. It’s why having a search bar in your app is so important.

But building a good search experience—specifically, the search bar and the interactions around it—is a tricky thing to design.

Let’s face it, we’ve all used a number of different search bars in products and there’s a big difference between good and great. That's why we're always refining our search experience at ThoughtSpot as we learn more about our users and the way they think. For example, one big a-ha moment for us came when we realized people needed help building their searches. Often people don’t know what they don’t know, or don’t know which questions to ask.

Similar to how search suggestions guide much of your Google and Pinterest search experience, our recent UX studies taught us that search string readability is crucial. So we recently introduced boxed search terms around each keyword you type in the search bar, making it easier for users to parse and make sense of the query. Clarity matters. You can see below how we’ve borrowed from Pinterest’s search experience. So far the customer feedback has been fantastic.

2. Never sacrifice speed for frills.

Your user experience, no matter how beautiful or intuitive, means nothing without speed. Research shows that if a Google search takes more than two seconds to load, most people will abandon it for another page. But enterprise software is notorious for creating tools with excessive numbers of features, which ends up creating bloat and ultimately slowing down the product. Nothing is more important than speed. 

So we knew we needed a simple search experience, but that it also had to stay fast even as we tackle massive data scale. Not so easy to do. As a designer, my goal is to create solutions that are usable and visually appealing. Users don’t care what’s going on behind the curtains—they just want a usable product and clear answers as quickly as possible. But I’ve had to take more things into account with this product.

For example, we recently made the decision to move the position of the headlines of charts from the top of the page to the bottom. The top placement gave users an immediate and clear understanding of the answer to their queries while looking nice visually, which was my goal, but it slowed down the product performance. While the backend caught up, we had to do a design half-step. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices in terms of aesthetics to improve the overall user experience.

 

3. Simplicity rules.

So now you’ve got speed. But if you talk to any product designer, he or she will also tell you that simplicity is key. "White space" gets thrown around in almost every design discussion online. Yet if you go look at most enterprise apps, they've clearly missed the memo. And I get it—it’s a lot harder than it looks.

When I started at ThoughtSpot as the first product designer, I came up with something clean and simple. But then came the feature requests. And more feature requests. It’s great to have so many requests from users, but I’ve had to learn how to prioritize.

You might remember Marissa Mayer’s reign as Google’s “high priestess of simplicity.” She rose to that prominence because she fought to keep Google’s homepage as simple as possible. Hundreds of people from different parts of the organization pushed back on her to add to it, but she held her ground.

I think about this whenever engineers ask for certain features. I often have to say no.

For example, an earlier release of our product included a data panel which gave the user options to explore available data before starting a search. While it was very helpful for some users, others didn’t ever use it, even though it was taking up a lot of real-estate by default. So we made it optional-- the user can now close it and really focus on the search experience. A minimal interface matters much more when you’re trying to scale to millions of untrained users.

 

4. Surprise and delight.

Everyone thinks about UX in terms of clean aesthetics and a simple user experience, but there’s a third dimension to it that’s harder to spot. It’s often this dimension that will take your app beyond useful to “sticky”  or “loved.” I call it the hidden gem dimension. This is where you’ll find features that are incredibly useful, just not always noticeable.

For example, I just came across two hidden app features that I use daily:

  • The "Pin" action of a Chrome tab. You can easily keep an important website always open in your tab as a default.
  • The option to “Create custom emoji” on Slack. Totally unnecessary, but it makes the app incredibly engaging. I love it.

While not crucial to my browsing or email experience, these features are valuable. The first time user experience is powerful. When I discovered each of these, I was wowed because they bring real value.

To incorporate this dimension into our product, we’re adding an additional collaboration feature that allows users to leave comments on data. It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference. Leaving a note on a chart you made for the team might save you a few emails or meetings, making everyone more productive. That's a cool thing!

I don't want ThoughtSpot to become an overly complex BI solution with a heavy interface that users can't understand. But design here, like at any company looking to disrupt, is still a work in progress. It took Google over a decade and an army of designers and engineers to nail the experience they have today. Our goal is not only to bring a cool app to market, but more importantly to change enterprise technology expectations. Designing an enterprise app with consumer-scale ambition gives us an opportunity to make a huge impact.

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