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Enterprise App UX Is Not Neuroscience–or Is It? An Interview with Menno Cramer

So many aspects of enterprise software are just not likable. Take enterprise app UX, for example. Rarely is it intuitive or even well-designed. The reason for that lies mostly in centuries of human experience. Until the past few decades, physical experiences primarily consumed our waking lives. True, religion and philosophy afforded opportunities to inhabit a world outside the here and now. But as a species our senses and brains developed to navigate and interact with a reality built from the tangible.

Now, our leisure and work time involve so many digital experiences. So, how do we build software that works with brains evolved for physical interactions?

Menno Cramer is Global UX/UI Lead and he came to user experience via a somewhat unusual path. Menno is a neuroscientist by training and his PhD research focused on the connection between the built environment and human behavior.

enterprise app UX - Menno

What Links Neuroscience and UX?

Menno: I was interested in how humans behave and how they think, how they feel, how they act. So, to give a quick example, as we speak, I’m sitting in a room that is quite small. I’m staring at a closed door; the light is not very pretty. All these things put me in a certain bodily state. This bodily state will make me feel happy, will make me feel comfortable, will make me feel nervous, will make me stumble over my words or will make me confident in the fact that I can give you a nice story. This is how the built environment impacts me, and this is used everywhere. It’s used in the architecture of schools, hospitals. The cockpit of an airplane is designed in such a way that the pilot can make a decision in a split second.

During Menno’s PhD studies, he began to see a connection between how the brain models the built environment and how younger people’s brains handle digital spaces. 

Menno: There are some interesting papers about younger generations – let’s say people born after 1995 to 2000. They perceive digital spaces the same way as how we used to analyze physical spaces. So, if I would look at the brain of someone who walks into a building that they’ve never been in, and how they analyze or how they find their way, it is the same for a child today logging into Facebook, for example. The first door is the Facebook news feed and the second door is your notifications, and then the other room is someone else’s Facebook page. How the brain perceives digital spaces is the same as how it perceives physical spaces.

Enterprise App UX: Bad User Interfaces Are Stressful

This link might explain why we find bad user interfaces to be so stressful and why we hate enterprise app UX, which can often be very big, very slow, very heavy. For our brains, navigating poorly thought-out software and enterprise app UX is similar to being lost in a confusing foreign city. We have no sense of familiarity to fall back on. We can’t read the signs. We don’t know the consequence of each choice we make. 

Menno: The Uber, Tinder and Netflix interfaces are the new, modern architecture. They use all the latest technologies, whereas your and my homes are probably not as exciting as what gets published in the latest architecture magazines. Zaha Hadid and other famous architects, they don’t play according to the rules. They start from scratch and reinvent what form and shape should be. The forefront of UX and UI should do the same.

Whether cutting edge or every day, good architecture weaves a purpose into the fabric of a building. And, it has a positive impact on the people who interact with it. For Menno, a well-understood purpose and the well-being of the end users are just as important when creating good user experiences. 

Menno: If you are the CEO of a company, you want your staff to be happy and healthy, right? That leads to an innovative, collaborative working environment. You can actually grow your business, rather than just do the same thing you do every day. In order for employees to be happy and healthy, and live in a collaborative and innovative way, you need to ask what they need. Then, you need to give them what they need.

enterprise app UX - ExcelThe Problem of Enterprise App UX

In enterprise software, often there is a tension between what users need, what they believe they need and what the business needs.

Menno: Giving people what they need is very different than giving people what they want. Say you go to a customer and you ask, “What do you want?” They will want the solutions of the problems today. But, that might not be the solution for the future strategic direction of that particular business. So, if someone works in a beautiful Excel spreadsheet, for example, I can build a digital version of that Excel spreadsheet. It will be much nicer, much shinier and much faster.

But you should actually question, “Why am I using an Excel spreadsheet? What value, as a human being, do I bring to this business process? And, why am I even validating these things in a cell when, actually, it’s part of a much bigger process that I could display in a very different way?”

And all of a sudden, you give insights to people of what they’re actually doing, rather than them being, effectively, a machine. I think that’s where the value generation lies, because everyone with a job is employed for a reason, right? They bring something unique. They have knowledge. They have a skill set. They have the experience to do something. And that is the something you need to find. Because, if you can leverage that, you can really bring businesses to the next level and help them grow.

Where Does Neuroscience Fit in the Practical Aspects of Creating Fulfilling User Experiences?

Menno: We don’t do heavy-duty fMRI studies or EEG studies of our users. We don’t look into their brain to see if they’re actually focused on what they should be focused on. But it gives the common sense of understanding as in, “Okay, is this user actually going to do what he or she should be doing?”

There’s obviously, by translating it into a design, the basic rules of heuristics, of, “Okay, the brain likes to see things in symmetry. Or, because, depending on the culture we are designing for, the majority is reading from top to bottom, left to right.” With heatmaps, you can see where people focus their attention on tablets versus smartphones, for instance. That means the valence–the importance of the information in certain regions of the screen—should change depending on the part of the screen.

But, at the end of the day, a neuroscientist would say, “I’m not really doing neuroscience,” and a designer says, “I don’t really design.” So, I live somewhere in-between and I can’t please either, but I think that’s quite a happy place to be.

On the Edge Between Neuroscientist and Designer

Living on the edge between neuroscientist and designer has given Menno a unique perspective on worthwhile user experiences. Yes, even enterprise app UX. During his studies, he learned one thing that has informed how he approaches design. 

Menno: If you want to improve your applications, removing detractors will have a much larger impact than adding stimulants.

A detractor is something that’s on the screen that would pull me away from what I’m supposed to do. A detractor is that ugly pink button that should have never been there. A detractor is that icon from the 1980s that the IT director forced the team to keep because he designed it himself.

Most people approach design by looking at it from scratch, They want to build a new process completely. Whereas, if I’m honest, there’s a cheaper fix in trying to remove all the noise rather than creating something beautiful. Designers won’t like this because their job is to create beautiful things. But, I would almost say one detractor has more impact to the business than five beautiful pieces.

Real People Mean Real Designenterprise app UX

Something that Menno and the mainstream of UX design do agree on is the need for putting real people at the center of the design process. 

Menno: The crucial piece is the perception of the user. You need to see them, you need to meet them, you need to make personas of what type of person each one is. Is this a tech-savvy person? Is this a person that chats all day to the person who at the next desk? How do they perceive things? Do they like working? Do they focus on the screen? Do they not focus on the screen?

As an example, suppose I know this person really focuses on the screen.  As a result, I know that a little red exclamation mark next to where they need to look is enough to grab their attention. If, though, they are not focused at all, I might have to do it differently. I might need to change the whole background color of the box to get their attention.

Perception is key to designing the right thing. Our brains filter out almost everything that we see and focus only on what’s important. Otherwise, we’d go insane. So, you need to understand what different types of people, in different situations, perceive.

Practical Advice for Developers

Not every software development team can hire a dedicated UX person, let alone a neuroscientist. So, what can individual developers do to improve the user interfaces that they create? 

Menno: We have a lot of good information on the OutSystems website. We’re building guided paths of how to become a developer on OutSystems, but we’re also building paths for UX and UI and how to build great applications. I think that’s a good starting point.

So, if you’re starting from scratch, you go to UX, then you go to UI, then you go to front-end, then you go to development. I would almost say for a developer to be most successful, you should do this the other way around. Try to make sure that your front-end skills are there or otherwise try to find a front-end developer who can help you align things, make the colors right. And then keep up an ongoing communication with a designer: tell them what you implemented versus what they designed. Your enterprise app UX is much more likely to be loved than hated this way.

Many developers should start at the design level in order to understand what they’re actually creating. Creating a screen with a button that does fancy stuff, reloads pages, stores stuff in databases and then a bunny starts jumping across the screen is amazing. However, the user has to get that she has to press that button. If she doesn’t, all your development effort goes down the drain.

For those teams who don’t have access to a designer, there’s still a solution. Tools such as OutSystems offer easy access to battle-tested UI patterns. These enable developers to focus on building the app itself.

Never Have a Failure to Communicate

Ultimately, user experience and user interface design are a form of communication. If, as a developer, you can speak to your target user, then empathize with their goals and understand their work environment, you turn it into a two-way conversation. However you approach developing your application, the way to ensure that everybody loves it rather than hates it starts with effective UX design. Imagine the satisfaction of an enterprise app UX people can’t wait to try.

See how easy front-end design and enterprise app UX can be. Try OutSystems—it’s free.

 

 

About the author

Matthew Revell

When he's not pondering the answers to low-code questions and writing for OutSystems, Matthew Revell heads up Hoopy, the developer relations consultancy he founded. He also runs DevRelCon, the developer relations conference. the DevRel blog and DevRel Jobs.

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