Harvard Business Review

This is from 2015 | 5 minute read

Make Enterprise Software People Actually Love

There is a big, important change happening in digital product design. For a long time, there has been a clear split between business software (often called Enterprise or B2B), and consumer software (B2C, or simply “products”). That split is increasingly irrelevant.

As a product designer, I cut my teeth on enterprise software at Trilogy in Austin; we developed configuration tools for Ford and Nissan, pricing solutions for the insurance vertical, and supply-chain and selling management software for a host of different companies. This category of software is typically characterized as “feature-rich.” In fact, these products are sold as lists of features to C-suite executives, and the conventional wisdom over many years has been that the package with the most features wins. Unfortunately, the executive who signs the check rarely has to actually use the product he just bought, and so those features that look so good in a PowerPoint actually manifest as a mess of unusable complexity for the individual contributors in the company.

The other extreme of the digital product spectrum is consumer software, where the focus is on drop-dead simple products that provide a value-proposition related to emotions rather than features. At frog design, many of the products I worked on – HP Touchsmart, Microsoft Virtual Earth – were intended for regular people. Regular people have expectations related to ease of use, simplicity, and – most importantly – emotional attachment. When we bring products into our houses, we are implicitly expecting them to behave as we would want any person who enters our home to behave – with respect for how we live.

Of course, the joke here is that people in large companies are “regular people” too. Increasingly, these people have autonomy related to the tools they use in their jobs. We’ve all heard of the “consumerization of IT“: workers bringing their own devices, their own software, and their own expectations to the workplace and rejecting the overly complicated software provided by their employers. Consumerization, in this context, is not the dirty word of consumption; rather, it refers to power of choice and autonomy of control. As we see more and more productivity tools emerge that are simple and easy to use, we’ll continue to see more individual business units reject massive tools like SAP and PeopleSoft for tiny tools like Harvest, Basecamp, or Smartsheet.

I’m in the middle of this enterprise-to-consumer shift at Blackboard, where we’ve had extraordinary success in the education-technology space by selling features to administrators or CIOs. But, analogous to the consumerization of IT, there is also consumerization of education going on. Students are increasingly empowered to choose alternative educational models, alternative places to learn, and alternative technology solutions to support their education. Blackboard recognizes this shift, and that’s one of the reasons they acquired the startup where I worked previously, MyEdu – a free product focused on helping college students succeed in college and get jobs. Our ethos: instead of focusing exclusively on selling software to giant companies, we need to rally around free tools that students can elect to work with; instead of “monetizing students” or “selling features,” we need to monetize products that minimize attrition, support the complexity of the academic journey, and help students find a vocation that they enjoy and in which they can grow. This is a product ethos built around emotional impact and attachment.

But saying and believing in these words, no matter how passionately, does not shift a giant company. Here are some of the ideas and practices that have helped me and my colleagues begin to make what will probably be a hard, years-long journey to recast our focus on learners, and to reposition our software as a great consumer product.

Show an alternative

No matter how well-intentioned, a company can’t get on board with a vision without actually seeing it. The best way to socialize a trajectory change is to show it, in detail, and in a way that the organization can understand. The designers at Blackboard began creating visually persuasive demos, prototypes, and vignettes of a path forward before the path was even crystalized. For example, Blackboard used animated visuals (a few of which are pictured below) to help rally people around an alternative vision of the future without worrying about requirements or legacy product issues.

Ground the design in emotional research

Rather than supporting an emotional shift from enterprise to consumer with market research, I’ve found it effective to illustrate the value through qualitative, ethnographic research. We spend time with students, teachers, and parents, and leverage the findings to both substantiate new design direction and to help humanize the shift. The best tools? Quotes, images, and video snippets of real people describing their job, life, and emotions.

Relentlessly beat the drum of experience over function

If enterprise software is characterized as “more,” consumer software is characterized as “less,” with a focus on the emotional quality of engagement rather than a breadth of robust functionality. I know from my own experience that it can be tedious to constantly remind, evangelize, and describe that this is important, and why it is important – but it is also critical to success.

Describe an incremental path towards success

The change from features to emotion – in mindset and in operation – doesn’t happen overnight, and while the alternative visualizations paint an ideal picture of the future, the reality is often more convoluted. A change like this requires re-examining and rationalizing multiple technology platforms, existing legal agreements, and entrenched perspectives. The organization needs to see an incremental path towards simple, emotionally engaging products, one that describes small steps forward towards a big vision. It’s not enough for us to say where we are going; we need to say how we intend to get there, too. This means creating a visual road map that shows a thoughtful parsing-out and bringing-down-to-earth of the vision to something achievable; it shows small wins over time.

Our own shift at Blackboard is only one of hundreds occurring in education, healthcare, banking, and in nearly every sector and part of life. Our society is realizing that technological advancement is strange, and we need to humanize it to make it familiar. This humanization comes through a shift from features to emotions, resulting in simple, well-designed products that people love to use.


Kolko, Jon (2015), "Make Enterprise Software People Actually Love". Harvard Business Review, 2/12/2015.
Want to read some more? Try Cultural Values That Will Make Your Office an Idea Factory.