Why do business products need design?
Six months into designing a system for car fleets, here is what I have learned in the process.
The beauty of designing for enterprise applications is that there is plenty of room to define what it means to be a designer. Since there are relatively few experts in this field, designers can engage in various activities, researching, building systems, creating a brand personality, or all at the same time. It’s also nice that the people who use products know what improvements they need to get the job done and suggest future updates.
I’m excited to see that the pressure from new products in the market, such as Slack or Notion, drives the software to become more flexible. Even though changes can cause a huge ripple effect for business tools, as parts of the tool can be made on top of others, they have started to put users first. But still, when changes do not happen too quickly, adequate solutions, if taken separately, might look confusing together.
Our team has a growing awareness that it is not enough for business tools to be useful. We try to make our products lively and humane by investing in a design system. Good design can simplify complex parts and make them more helpful. Also, common design principles let you determine which parts of the product are not joined up and make them work well together. What’s more, well-defined design standards create a fulfilling experience.
When our company acquired the service for car fleets, our team felt that we had a unique call ahead of us. We needed to move forward purposefully to review existing parts and add new ones along the way. In the beginning, we got a genuine understanding of the peoples’ jobs to ensure that we would bring real value. This was not easy because our consumers are diverse. We started figuring out which jobs were the most valuable, consulting with executives, and getting feedback from end-users. Our team returns to these insights when we lose our focus or get requests beyond the scope.
When I looked through existed sections, I came across different versions of the same item and various layouts for similar tasks. It was noticeable that the product design did not have clear standards and structure. Even with many hands, it’s hard to move on when you have an incomplete and inconsistent design. I saw my goal as making the design reusable so that the product could be scaled and maintained.
I started with the simplest components, buttons, checkboxes, inputs. Standard components are like characters in a typeset. Their appearance may differ in different sets, but not their functionality. The most challenging part, which took me some time, was to put the words in clear sentences, that is, to assemble the components into reusable groups and organize the page templates. The fact that I had to work on product tasks simultaneously as working on the system helped me cope with this. It gave me a great understanding and confidence in what was needed.
Although the set of components in different systems is basically the same, the visual language makes them different. Each piece should incorporate this unique visual code, expressed in colors, shapes, and spaces because the beautiful and delightful consumer experience is the new “normal.” If the business product is less likable than the other apps people use every day, they wouldn’t connect with it and recommend it to their community.
The main design idea in this system is to demonstrate cheerfulness and humanity. For this reason, I preferred rounded and simple shapes to strict and complex ones. I used colors to keep the design fresh and engaging, making it easier for the audience to understand the hidden patterns. This essential lens helped me show the data more clearly and visually to an audience with lower information literacy. For the same reason, an intricate design would be less noticeable, I was keen to choose more simplified charts to visualize the data.
Discovering valuable scenarios, defining reusable parts, and designing a personality is what helps develop the product. Just as important is how it is done. When there is a clear process, the whole team understands what to expect at each stage. At the same time, the designer can focus on the task at hand without worrying about what to do next.
After our team agreed on several page templates, we got two ways to solve the problems. One way when the situation looks familiar is to choose a layout from the library. Even when it needs modifications, the iteration is much faster. The second method is required when the solution does not immediately come to mind. In this case, you need to come up with a particular layout, usually, there are several such options, and you need to test them to choose the best one.
From what I’ve experienced, your design system becomes unique at some point if you aim for it. Still, it will work even if it is the most ordinary. Achieving uniqueness requires effort and, therefore, extra time and expertise. Some business projects may lack both. In such a situation, using a ready-made library and templates may be the way out. It is still worth striving for the best because beautiful and original products have advantages. If the product is compelling enough, users will sell it on your behalf, and you need to worry less about expansion. Also, by investing in a great user experience, you don’t need a huge support team because everything will be self-explanatory. Since these benefits are apparent to product owners and they would like to delight their users, the real question will be different. Not whether business products need design, but how to make sure that products can afford it?