Software is always changing to better meet the needs of the end user. For business software, this has meant a trend toward familiar user interfaces, such as the ones encountered on popular social media platforms. For businesses, this means streamlined training and improved employee productivity. In this article, we examine the software development of business tech over the years and how user experience has vastly improved in recent history.
“UI” and “UX” are terms that describe the front end of software. In other words, these are what the user sees and can do. “UI” stands for “user interface” and encompasses everything a user can do with the software from a functional perspective. “UX” stands for “user experience,” which includes the feelings that the user takes away from the experience, which may include ease of use, confusion or frustration.
Software built for consumers has traditionally been much more attractive and easier to use than business software. The reason for this is that software developers design products to attract individual users and respond to market pressures. If a consumer-based app is clunky or unattractive, users will choose a competitor’s product, and the developers will need to update their product in order to compete in the market.
With business software, however, the people making the decision are typically not the users of the product, and their goals are very different from those of an end user. In some cases, the executives assume that a cumbersome software design can be conquered with employee training, and they are more focused on how it integrates with the company’s other systems and its overall cost.
These days, there is more emphasis on business software’s UI and UX, so the software is beginning to look and function more like consumer apps.
Business software used to be dowdy and unintuitive. That’s still the case in some industries, but in recent years, many SaaS or cloud-based software solutions have taken on a look and feel that is clearly focused on the user experience. Features that were once only seen in gaming and social media are seeping into business products, and competing products are increasingly similar in interface design.
While all-in-one business software ecosystems are still popular, the ability to integrate with third-party solutions and use SaaS products across different devices is becoming the norm.
As a side effect, UI/UX developers are tasked with creating products that are as easy to use as simple, lightweight apps, but as powerful as legacy enterprise software. Meanwhile, businesses are feeling pressure to replace older, traditional business systems with streamlined SaaS products.
Understanding how technology has been adopted thus far can give us insights on the tech trends we’re seeing today and help us predict what’s coming next. Here’s how the worlds of consumer software products and business software products collided, resulting in a landscape of increasingly homogeneous and user-friendly products that bridge the gap between B2B and B2C.
As computer technology adoption expanded, businesses had more software choices. Changing dynamics within companies gave employees more say, which gave a competitive edge to software with a better UX.
In 1995, the Pew Research Center found that just 14% of U.S. adults had internet access, and 42% of adults had never heard of the internet – while an additional 21% had heard of it and knew it had to do with computers, but weren’t sure what it was. By 2014, Pew’s research found that 81% of American adults were using computers.
Fast-forward to 2021, when the Pew Research Center found that only 13% of American adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year had no web-enabled device (a smartphone, tablet or computer) at home – and that situation was practically nonexistent at higher income levels.
Moreover, 85% of American adults are online daily, and nearly a third (31%) said they are “almost constantly online.” This heavy consumer app usage created tremendous market pressure to produce apps with the best UX.
Most early users were introduced to computers in work settings. Of course, home computers are common now, but even as of 2000, only 62% of Americans were using laptops or desktops. In other words, as ubiquitous as computers have become, the adoption process didn’t happen overnight, and the way computers and subsequent devices were adopted has had a massive impact on UI and UX design.
Initially, most people viewed computers as business devices, so they focused on the way those devices could make work tasks more efficient. Little thought was given to how attractive a piece of software was, because the alternative was doing everything by hand. Since there was very little comparison and technology was already being pushed to its limits (for the time), the general idea was that any software was better than no software at all.
Employee opinions on software were essentially irrelevant – not only because there were fewer products to choose from, but also because in the 1990s and even the early 2000s, work culture was one of hierarchies and formalities, not one where employees felt they could or should dictate how they worked. If work systems weren’t user-friendly, employees had to get over it and use them anyway.
Puneet Gangal, CEO and founder of Aciron Consulting (a business management and IT consulting firm based in Boston), has been in the technology and management field for more than 20 years and seen the shift firsthand.
“For a long time, businesses were prioritizing functionality over design for their internal applications – it didn’t matter what it looked like, as long as it got the job done,” Gangal said. “Employees used these systems because they had no other choices. Now, however, employees have gotten so accustomed to using intuitive, beautifully designed consumer products in their personal life, they are demanding a similar experience for their business software.”
While many clickbait articles blame millennials for the increasing demands business users make of their work technology, the experts we talked to seemed unanimous in their opinion that the shift has more to do with availability and exposure than age or generation.
Adam Conrad, a software consultant and business owner with 10 years of experience as a UX engineer, explained the demand for beautifully designed work software as a natural step in the evolution of business technology.
“First, we simply had to put out products online to increase distribution,” he said. “Then, when everyone had their products online, it evolved to become about creating a great experience around those products. We are simply at that point now where there is enough market saturation that we require strong brands to distinguish ourselves, and a brand includes the experience of using our products and interacting with the employees.”
According to Gangal and several other UI/UX experts we consulted, companies that fail to offer employees easy-to-use systems now run the risk of their staff going rogue to find their own solutions.
“We have seen companies that lacked an easy-to-use document management system, so employees chose to use a variety of unsanctioned consumer products, such as Dropbox and Google Drive, instead,” Gangal said. “To compete with these personal software solutions and improve user adoption, business software needs to embrace UX design. Otherwise, business software will get pushed out of the marketplace by consumer products that are crossing over to the enterprise market, such as G Suite.”
In addition to a shift in work culture and an explosion of lower-cost SaaS solutions, the way people interact with technology has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. People are increasingly working from home, setting their own hours, contracting, accessing business systems on the go and demanding work-life balance. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend. All this has been possible thanks largely to the trend away from high-cost locally hosted software and toward SaaS solutions and mobile apps, driven by the widespread adoption of smartphones.
Smartphone ownership has contributed more to how people view and use business technology than you might think. In 2000, while only 62% of Americans were using computers, an even smaller percentage (53%) owned cell phones.
However, by 2014, a whopping 90% of American adults owned cell phones, and cell phone ownership was never as closely tied to education or socioeconomic status as computer ownership and usage was (and still is).
The entry-level price point for cell phones lowered very quickly once usage became common, and when smartphones were first released by Apple (2007) and HTC (2008), the mobile online experience got a lot better too. Suddenly, if consumers wanted to get online but couldn’t afford a laptop or desktop (plus the costs of an internet connection), they could get a smartphone. In fact, in 2021, 27% of people in low-income households relied solely on their smartphones for internet connectivity, according to the Pew Research Center data.
In the early 2000s, the first version of downloading add-ons onto phones arrived in the form of custom ringtones and wallpapers. In 2008, things changed again when Apple debuted the App Store and Google released Android Market (which later became Google Play).
When the App Store launched, it offered a mere 500 applications, paid and free, for download. Now, both Android and Apple stores offer millions of applications, allowing users to customize their devices in ways they couldn’t before.
This had the unintended side effect of turning average consumers into UI/UX critics. Like Yelp, app marketplaces allow users to leave ratings and reviews, and once users gained access to millions of apps, they learned to be choosy (just like today’s lay restaurant critics).
If you peruse app reviews, you’ll see criticisms about the inability to change an app’s color scheme, the pervasiveness of advertisements and in-app purchase offers, software bugs, and the presence or absence of certain features.
In 2010, when apps were taking off in a big way, the most popular apps were generally games, Facebook, media platforms like Netflix and Pandora, and communication platforms such as Skype. As it became clear that apps were not a fad but an evolutionary step on the tech ladder, major software companies started making apps to complement their products, including business software.
Then the mobile social media big bang happened, and a whole new field of marketing and e-commerce was born, permanently blurring the lines between personal-use and business-use apps.
The rise of social media resulted in more consumer exposure to personal and business products, as well as more crossover and competition between B2B and B2C technology. Examples of this are Facebook’s foray into business products, monetized Instagram accounts and advertising on the platform itself, and the development of G Suite (later Google Workspace) from a formerly consumer-focused product (Gmail). Financial apps like PayPal branched out into the credit card processing space, and competitors like POS provider Square soon followed. [Want to know which is better? We compared Square and PayPal head-to-head.]
Now, rather than business solutions and consumer products being developed separately with vastly different aims, consumer products are influencing business UI/UX, and vice versa.
Many of the software dev experts we spoke with said they thought social media design had a direct influence on business software and business app design. Some examples they gave us as evidence of this trend in work software are “at” mentioning (@EmployeeName) in work systems, upvoting and downvoting in work systems, emojis in work chat systems, GIFs in work chat systems, and live notifications in SaaS products.
The demand for intuitive work products has resulted in a sort of homogenization of many business and consumer products. While different branded CRM software and CMS platforms used to look and function in dramatically different ways, now most of the industry leaders across many spheres of business software have similar features, interfaces, and dashboard designs.
Releventure CTO Randolph Morris, who has been in the tech world for over 30 years, noted both the proliferation of mobile usage and increased focus on employee comfort as reasons for the consistency between product interfaces for consumer and business products. He agreed that the line between business and personal products is blurring, and said it’s no surprise that elements from consumer products are finding their way into business solutions.
“Software is at a point where most features of functionality have an established UI element [that] users are comfortable using,” Morris said. “Add to that a generation of people who have had these elements available to them their entire lives. In most cases, it makes sense to use interface elements that users are expecting. Additionally, most platforms have a standards guide that reinforces these expectations to product consistency in our interfaces.”
Because users expect to feel an immediate sense of familiarity with business products they’ve never used before, developers have taken on a user-first approach to design. Nowadays, a design that isn’t instantly easy to use can kill an otherwise stellar product.
Lisa Baskett, a senior UX researcher at RevUnit with over 20 years of experience in the industry, said she has seen clients become “increasingly better versed in user experience process and methods” in recent years. She noted that, in reaction to this change in business consumers, today’s UX/UI pros are “starting to understand the value of considering the user first and foremost.” She believes the main drivers of this change are experience (in the form of past failed products and lost revenue) and “greater visibility of the UX industry as a whole through social media, conferences and industry blogs.”
She also noted the influence of social media, specifically the use of social media in business, as a turning point in business software design and consumer expectations. “[Clients] desire the same transparent and immediate communication options present in the software they use at home to be available in the software they use at work. They want the same level of engagement as well […] People are becoming way less tolerant of the disconnect between personal software that works effortlessly and the clunky, inefficient experiences of the business software they use every day. Users want immediate and effortless experiences.”
When workers first started using software in the office, there was an understanding that each program had a steep learning curve. Now there’s the expectation that good technology should be intuitive enough to eliminate the need for training beyond a few learning guides and videos. While the blame for this impatience with learning is often attributed exclusively to millennials, they certainly aren’t the only ones bringing strong opinions on technology into the office.
It’s true that younger people have higher exposure and adoption rates when it comes to social media, smartphones, and computer use, but older generations are catching up.
According to the Pew Research Center, 96% of millennials currently own smartphones, but so do 95% of Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) and 83% of boomers (born 1946 to 1964). Additionally, 77% of Gen Xers and 73% of boomers use social media either personally or professionally.
Several experts said they knew colleagues who had quit jobs over poorly designed technology, and many more cited examples of employees or clients flat-out refusing to use unintuitive legacy solutions. This attitude – that the need for onboarding is a sign of a poorly designed system – will likely become more prevalent as users who are growing up with Snapchat and Instagram enter the workforce and software products become increasingly similar in look and feel.
In short, adopting business software solutions with an easy-to-use and functional UI and UX will:
All of this means that small businesses should think long and hard about the software they adopt and carefully consider how using less user-friendly legacy systems may impact employee morale, retention, and productivity.
Jennifer Dublino contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.