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On the Pace of Consumerization of the Enterprise

Chuck Moore Chuck Moore 2 min read

At DesignMap, we’ve used the phrase “consumerization of the enterprise” since day one — it was love at first sight. The idea that “enterprise”, or maybe more accurately, “business-to-business” (B2B) software should achieve the same standards as "business-to-consumer" (B2C) software is exactly where DesignMap plays best.

We love to take the impossibly complicated, organize and rationalize it, and make it beautiful and even delightful to use, all without dumbing it down or losing any of its power. We believe that just because you use a digital product for work doesn’t mean that software shouldn’t achieve the same standard as “consumer-grade” software. That is: you use it because you want to, not because you have to.

And yet, we haven't differentiated between traditionally-designed B2B software and B2C software beyond that: B2B software should be better. But lately I've been thinking that we are doing ourselves and design writ large a disservice by tossing off this "consumerization of the enterprise" phrase. What exactly do we mean by that, and how do we go about it?

It would be easy to point to the stereotypically dated and drab visual design of your standard B2B software: the drab greys, the 90's gradients. Is that what we mean? Fixing the fonts, colors and styles? Certainly updating that can be quick (depending on how the software was built), can demo better at sales pitches, and at first can be a better representation of the brand — at least the company that released the software doesn't look hopelessly out of date during the first 5 seconds of use.

Not fake. And we've seen worse.

Fixing this requires the software to be built, and to be released, in such a way that it can at least keep up with visual design trends for moderns software. A release every 6 months will mean the software feels dated the moment it's released. But moving to an agile method of delivery makes it possible to make a good first impression.

BUT, of course, that is only the first 5 seconds. Thirty seconds in, and with traditionally designed B2B software you're inevitably looking at layers of tabs (because features were added on over the years, with no acknowledgement of design debt building up or pause to reorganize and rationalize things). There are usually still a multitude of icons, many impenetrable, and inevitable modal dialogue boxes (sometimes modals upon modals). The software might look modern, but all its tricks are old, even if the colors and fonts are shiny and new. How the software acts — the interaction design, or user experience design must be addressed.

Thinking beyond the design of the product itself, to the overall experience or service (strategy, even), we can see how breaking down the barriers of the traditional B2B model in terms of service, sales, and go to market... so that users can act like customers rather than seats, has driven the success of many modern B2B companies. Companies like Slack and Docker made it possible for individual contributors to sign up and begin using their software, then drive demand with their managers and executives, rather than waiting for the execs to hand down whatever bullet-list-of-feature-driven-software-package was selected by the committee.

So... consumerization of B2B software is a simple term for a complex, layered series of changes that must take place over time. The timing and approach of each layer of evolution depends on a similarly complex (more complex?) amalgam of the technology, the market, the willpower of the organization, and the culture.

Waves of "Consumerization" of Enterprise Software

I'm going to be thinking and writing more about this in 2020, and how this model parallels Stewart Brand's pace layers model in many ways. But in the meantime, if this sparks any thoughts for you, please drop me a line and let me know!