Pick up your smartphone. Are the apps inviting, so you want to keep using them? Do they make you happy to use them? If so, that’s great user interface design in action: aesthetically pleasing and addictive to use. I call the result “beautiful software.”
We can thank mobile computing, which forces software designers to focus on just a few features — presented in a way that feels both natural and enjoyable. Some of the best examples include Evernote, Dropbox and Waze, whose elegance designs have attracted legions of avid followers.
This is far from the case in the world of enterprise software. Regardless if they’re legacy software from companies such as Oracle and SAP, or first generation of cloud apps from the likes of Salesforce or Concur, enterprise apps remains largely complicated, counter-intuitive and, yes, downright ugly. It’s an opportunity I’d love to see more startups address. In fact, I’m convinced the hallmark of the next $1 billion enterprise company will be beautiful software.
That’s because enterprises today have to contend with a perfect storm of technologies, economics and social issues. First, they must satisfy the demands of the 80 million strong millennial generation, which expects workplace apps and devices to deliver the same great user experience as consumer products. Next, they have to ride the accelerating wave of mobile computing: Tablets are supplanting desktops, employees are bringing their own devices to work, and new mobile apps are pulling in big data from across the cloud to deliver actionable insight.
And on top of all this, companies are still trying to do more with fewer people. Consider the latest statistics. According to a June report from the U.S. Labor Department, employee output per hour increased by half of 1 percent in the first three months of the year, while labor costs dropped by an annualized rate of 4.3 percent. In essence, companies are doing more with fewer resources.
So where does beautiful software fit in? A number of studies show that, when it comes to software, attractive products are perceived as easier to use than ugly ones. Said another way: “what is beautiful is usable” and, therefore, more productive.
More Than the Eye of the Beholder
When I talk about beautiful software, I mean software that’s elegant, immersive, intuitive and natural. Such software cuts away the superfluous, and focuses on solving a specific problem with as few clicks and detours as possible.
Steve Jobs personified this philosophy. In Apple’s first marketing brochure, Jobs co-opted a quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
According to Jobs’ biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs believed simplicity was more than a spare and uncluttered facade. He called it a “deep simplicity that comes from knowing the essence of every product, the complexities of its engineering and the function of every component.”
I believe such simplicity starts by designing a Minimally Awesome Product, or MAP. Instead of trying to be all things for all people, MAPs strip away superfluous features and functions, and focus on a single value proposition.
Ride the Storm
While I’m convinced that beautiful software will define successful startups, I also believe that entrepreneurs targeting the enterprise market need to ride the perfect storm of the four technologies simultaneously reshaping the industry.
Those technologies are social, mobile, cloud and big data. They not only magnify each other, they put even greater emphasis on software that’s intuitive and addictive while helping businesses transform how they do business.
I look for startups that combine two or more of these trends, delivered in a way that makes users happy. Developers actually enjoy using Appcelerator, which combines the cloud and mobility for building mobile enterprise apps. AlpineData’s elegant interface is already winning fans as they use an intuitive interface that allows data scientists to query big data, thereby uncovering meaning in these big data pools.
I believe that they, and others like them, have a real chance of displacing currently entrenched enterprise vendors. After all, companies want apps that will make their employees more productivity. Employees demand apps they want to use. That’s a beautiful combination, if ever I saw one.