Designing for the enterprise: more than just rounding corners


“Enterprise technology” and “beautiful design” aren’t typically used in the same sentence. But just because the application is made for IT-users, doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful or easy to use. Believe me, I know – I relied on that kind of software earlier in my career as a data analyst.

What exactly does enterprise software do? Well, in my case as the principal software engineer at SnapLogic, it’s making sense of streams of data that are difficult to visualize because they are abstract. It requires advanced code and a deep understanding of computer science concepts. But business needs are changing in today’s cloud, social and mobile enterprise. Every person in an organization today has a powerful computer in their pocket that’s easy to use and intuitive.

Traditionally, enterprise application and data integration software has been incredibly complicated, with lists on lists, lines, charts, graphs — not to mention dated and minuscule 90’s-style tiny icons everywhere and coding windows crammed onto several PC monitors. So, when it comes to developing a modern cloud integration approach to connect enterprise systems, my small team and I knew we had to change how traditional IT users thought about user experience. We had to simplify the design of these incredibly complex programs.

It wasn’t enough to simply round the corners of an icon — we needed to rethink and rebuild the technology.

Our design philosophy

There are two ways of designing something: the submarine model, and the airplane model. In a submarine, all the parts are dangling on the inside, so they’re easily fixable in an emergency situation: there are an overwhelming amount of nobs, whistles, buttons, levers. Plus, one has to be highly trained to navigate the parts. In an airplane, all the parts are encapsulated and hidden by smooth plastic. These parts have a high level of sophistication under the hood, but have easy-to-read sensors on a singular dashboard in the cockpit that allows pilots to keep track of its status.

Anything that handles back-end systems has traditionally sat in the submarine camp. But why should it? Database systems and integration is a lot for even computer scientists to handle, so my team set out to create something that could be easily understood and implemented without needing to know specialized code.

The problem was that before, most of this so-called “middleware” software wasn’t designed with the user in mind, but rather the buyer. Roles such as the chief technology officer or IT managers weren’t looking for usability, but compliance. I knew that this approach would not work for a cloud-based solution, where users expect to get up and running quickly and customers expect a fast time to value and ROI.

The approach: Design with the user in mind

Sounds basic, but when you look at the traditional application and data integration technologies on the market, it’s clear they’re designed for the last generation’s expectations.

My team’s approach tapped into the expectations of today’s users: the integration developers, data architects, engineers and business analysts. They are highly skilled, yes, but want more efficiency and intuitiveness; for example, something that runs in a browser and can be viewed on a tablet and presented with zero integration / technical experience. We realized early on that these users don’t want to code the same thing over and over again by hand. They want to be productive quickly and they want to reuse and share what they’ve developed. They want ease of use and efficiency, but they also need to be able to perform complex workflows and handle advanced integration use cases.

The process

We started by building the front-end design before the backend; it just made sense for our lean startup. We knew right away that the app needed to fulfill the following five characteristics:

  1. Modern technology: We wanted the SnapLogic platform to be device agnostic, so we built it in HTML5.
  2. Clean, elegant interface: We sought to de-clutter and simplify, so we limited the choices for icons to eight instead of a possible 600. Also, we made sure to use plenty of white space to ensure we delivered a clean user experience.
  3. We wanted developers to like using the product: From making sure SnapLogic’s design interface was beautiful, to making sure the code “ran” smooth and zippy.
  4. Surprise and delight: When you assemble a data pipeline, our name for an integration workflow, the pieces literally fit together like puzzle pieces, making a “snap” sound. It’s incredibly simple, and perhaps a little corny, but our users love it. It’s the closest thing they can get to physically manipulating terabytes of data in a drag and drop interface.
  5. Giving a window into the data: When you’re processing code, developers usually just wait for the computer to crunch the numbers. In our system, you can see via colors and icons which “stage” the data is in, how far along it is. We plan on providing an additional level of detail in this area of the product as it’s quickly become a very popular feature.

Challenges, triumphs and beyond

Even though we radically changed what integration IT professionals expect to see, we found out we couldn’t completely reinvent the wheel. For example, in an early version of SnapLogic, we put a menu on the right (the standard is on the left). Our power users objected, so we changed it back, but it just goes to show how companies need to constantly plug into users’ needs.

Today, we listen to our users, and respond based on monthly iterations. We continue to ask ourselves, “what are their pain points? How can we solve their problems?” We deploy monthly so our users can see that we are listening to them and continuously improving the product.

What I really love, though, is the excitement I hear when a developer runs a pipeline of data successfully for the first time. It brings me back to when we were building the product and saw all the parts snap into place. With SnapLogic, what used to take multiple developers and multiple months can now be achieved with a single person in a few hours using our cloud integration software.

We haven’t seen many enterprise companies follow our lead, but hopefully users will become increasingly empowered and continue to demand better products. The enterprise technology industry as a whole can move from delivering just “adequate software” to an ecosystem approach where software is designed to both fulfill the user expectations and functional requirements of a business.

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