The Consumer Expectations of the Business User

There is a quiet revolution taking place in the enterprise. It’s not something you are going to notice at first. It doesn’t manifest in the kind of disruption that raises the eyebrows of management. It is quiet. Oh so quiet.

This revolution lives in the hearts and minds of the people who we loosely call the “business user”. And the business user is people like you and me. It’s the people who use business systems as part of their daily work. It may be that we use these systems for customer relationship management, timesheets or expenses or it may be that we use them for the heavy duty number crunching of forecasting, accounting, payroll or logistics. Many of us have been using these systems for years.

But at the end of the day, when we log out of these systems, abandon our cubes and head home, we open the door to a whole other world of digital experience.

Grabbing a beer with colleagues at a local bar we use our smartphones to check in on Foursquare. We text friends to let them know where we are, or put out a message on Twitter with the #tweetup hashtag. The more sophisticated will link FourSquare with Twitter and also with Facebook (or Facebook places) to reach different groups of friends with the same message.

Over the next hour there will be tweets, twitpics and Foursquare badges claimed. Photos snapped on our mobile devices will be published to our Posterous blogs or Tumblr sites, pushed to Flickr and tagged on Facebook. We’ll check for restaurant recommendations with our favourite foodies on Twitter, ask @garyvee for a recommendation on a nice bottle of red.

At home over the weekend, we will tag and categorise our pictures, linking people with the places and events of the last week. We will add commentary to our own photos and those of our friends. We will write reviews of restaurants, add tips to locations and “experiences” that we enjoyed and maybe even blog about it all. We are actively engaging, controlling and managing our digital experiences.

But the thing is – we CAN do this. Mobile devices – smartphones, iPads etc all give us access to enterprise grade computing systems framed in a way that links activity, purpose and lifestyle. The fast, powerful, platforms that manage the publishing, distribution and contextualisation of our content vastly outstrip the performance many of us experience in the office. We are increasingly living an on-demand, always-on, connected existence.

What does this look like from the outside? To be honest, it looks like a bunch of people, ignoring each other, sending email on their BlackBerrys or iPhones. But psychologically, you are witnessing a moment of flow. Of connectedness. Or what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi would call “flow” – a state of completely focused motivation. This, of course, is what every employer wants to see in their employees, right?

The problem comes when we take our consumer expectations into the office. Some of our business systems simply do not respond in the way that more “consumer” oriented systems have conditioned us to expect. They take us out of the state of flow. Sometimes this is to do with business rules but often it is simply down to responsiveness. If Facebook can give us an uninterrupted digital experience – keeping us engaged and in the moment – then why can’t our business systems?

As Jakob Nielsen explains, there are three important limits when it comes to response times:

The basic advice regarding response times has been about the same for thirty years [Miller 1968; Card et al. 1991]:

  • 0.1 second is about the limit for having the user feel that the system is reacting instantaneously, meaning that no special feedback is necessary except to display the result.
  • 1.0 second is about the limit for the user's flow of thought to stay uninterrupted, even though the user will notice the delay. Normally, no special feedback is necessary during delays of more than 0.1 but less than 1.0 second, but the user does lose the feeling of operating directly on the data.
  • 10 seconds is about the limit for keeping the user's attention focused on the dialogue. For longer delays, users will want to perform other tasks while waiting for the computer to finish, so they should be given feedback indicating when the computer expects to be done. Feedback during the delay is especially important if the response time is likely to be highly variable, since users will then not know what to expect.

So, when you are thinking about the business systems you use – or that you want others to use – make sure you are delivering to their expectations. After all, you want business users to achieve their objectives. You want to support them in their work. And this means removing those barriers to flow.

3 thoughts on “The Consumer Expectations of the Business User

  1. There are tremendous usability difference between “off the clock” web applications and the corporate ones. Perhaps part of this is the massive differential in user re-training, team sizes, and release cycles, but will we ever see a time when corporate software is as responsive or pleasant to use as these small passion projects?

  2. Consumers expect their businesses to sound decisions. Companies must offer a good service and products to meet customer needs. Good customer service is based on a well-trained and helpful staff ready to help and advise customers with products and reliable services.

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