The ‘Soft Side’ of Enterprise Software: How Human Emotion and Empathy Play into Software Design Today

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Enterprise software design is no longer just about simplicity. Organizations expect software to be easy to use — it’s a must-have. What differentiates today’s enterprise software is user experience, according to Michele Sarko, chief design officer at SAP Ariba.

“Enterprise software, to me, is transforming tremendously because there is really no excuse anymore for enterprise software to be hard,” Sarko said.

Those in charge of buying enterprise software for business organizations are not basing their purchasing decisions on the simplicity of a solution, either. Decisions are being made on emotion — if the software looks good and if users will enjoy applying it to their daily workflow. Enterprise software should also reflect the experiences users have with the applications and technology they use on personal devices outside of work that they emotionally connect to, are passionate about and talk to their friends about, Sarko added.

“Those are the things I have desired to bring here to the user experience at SAP Ariba — taking enterprise software, which has a stigma, a perception of being hard and complicated, and making it as easy to use and as delightful as the apps you use and the experiences you have in your daily lives,” she said.

Sarko and her team of software engineers have been focusing on what has been called the “softer side” of software design — it’s about connecting to the emotions and desires of the “users and choosers” of the products. Software designers and engineers need to understand what motivates the people using the software, what they need to be successful and how they want to interact with the solution. Overall, it comes back to empathy.

“For me, the softer side is not just being feminine or masculine, it’s about understanding people and human behavior and getting empathy around them,” Sarko said.

This “softer” side of software design has become a larger trend in the enterprise software market within the last few years, according to Sarko. It’s largely driven by societal pressures and the expectations of younger generations who have grown up around technology in their everyday lives and demand certain features in the technology they use at work, too.

Understanding Human Behavior, Emotion

The newer take on software design is less risky and more likely to be successful from a business perspective, Sarko said. Historically, software was designed and then tested in the market, with developers hoping users would react well to it and use it. Today’s more “design-driven” market approach is more about first researching what it is users want in software, what they need to complete a task and what they desire in the software before building it.

It’s an approach that heavily invests in user research, which happens to be one of four distinct disciplines on Sarko’s software user experience design team at SAP Ariba. User research professionals are as psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists who understand human behavior. It’s how they are able to bring the human element to software design, creating a “brand new feel” to enterprise software, Sarko said.

The Complexity of Simple Software Design

This new easier, user-friendly take on enterprise software has created a “ripe opportunity for disruption” in the market, according to Sarko. But it is also creating some challenges for designers. While enterprise software may be easier to use today, it’s not necessarily easier to build.

“It’s like an iceberg, if you think about it,” she said. “What you see above the water is only a fraction of what is there. So we hide that complexity below the water.”

Regardless of complexity, software designers need to take note of the new demands in the market. Buyers purchasing the enterprise software solutions an organization will use also need to pay attention to a solution’s usability and its “soft” features.

“How do they become the hero within the company?” Sarko said of the purchasers. “They become the hero by making sound decisions to buy software that people want to use and love.”

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