I dislike the term business user..

Last week I had the pleasure to participate in a brainstorming session on Netweaver UI futures. I can’t blog the details here, but I’d urge the internal SAP folks to check out the Wiki in this area, lots of cool stuff cooking.  A highlight for me was hearing how design led thinking is gradually but deeply permeating SAP. Listening to developers talk about their experiences at customer sites where they really dug deep into user personas, roles, hats and so on was exactly what I was hoping to hear. I’m convinced that deep, open and direct dialogue between developers and the people using the software is absolutely vital. (eek cluetrain alert)

The purpose of this post though isn’t to talk about design, but about terminology.

Having worked with payroll and compliance related software for the past decade or more, I understand how hard it is to build and maintain enterprise applications. I have written a lot here about the difference between enterprise applications and consumer applications. I’ve been critical of those who label enterprise software overly complex without understanding what the software actually does. I’ve also been critical of using the enterprise label as an excuse for forcing unnecessary complexity on the people that use the software.

I dislike, no actually, I hate the term business user.

Why talk about the business user?

1. It surely irks folks working in the public sector. They are not businesses.

2. I don’t like the implication that business users are somehow different to “other” users, and that people become suddenly different when dealing with the “serious business stuff” Do I change personality when I log on to a “business suite”?


(from wikipedia)


I’m the same person



and here. In a business suit talking about business suites.(Sartorial commentary welcome)


Of course, other than that my “consumer” persona would like to spend more on high end bicycle components than my “enterprise” persona (and spouse) would allow….

If as a consumer I’m able to log onto eBay and find the said expensive component, buy it easily and get it delivered with a minimum of fuss, then why would I not expect the same simplicity in the office? Just because I’m in the office doesn’t mean that I now should have to tolerate unnecessary complexity. 

Labelling things enterprise, business or even professional enables a defence of complexity that shouldn’t be tolerated without a challenge.

People log on to consumer tools because they want to, but often they log on to enterprise applications because they have to. I don’t think this should be an excuse to expose them to any more complexity than absolutely necessary. How products are named impacts this perception. Why would anyone want to click onto something called workspace?  This is a Business Application. It does serious stuff. You need to pay attention. Sit up straight. Behave.

I’m not sure that this division can be relied on for ever, either. People are using more and more “consumer” applications in their daily work. The nature of work is changing, just look at  “bursty v Busyness”  The palette of tools to support burstiness is growing ever richer, and I believe there is tremendous value in bringing these concepts into the heart of enterprise applications.

I blogged the other day about fun being a user requirement, and I’m convinced we need a whole lot more of it in enterprise application thinking. Consumer applications are raising the simplicity and fun bar very rapidly, and we enterprisey types had better get used to it. Design business applications with the assumption that the people using the application have a choice about which application to use, and that the screens and processes that you design directly impact their job satisfaction.  

Hugh of Gapingvoid gives us something to ponder on.

I firmly believe that the line that separates social media and ERP is going to start getting VERY blurry, and really soon. I can see a not-to-distant future where even the larger ERP solutions are built around social software, not the other way around. And I can see that day arriving in under five years. We live in interesting times.

James Governor made a similar point a few weeks ago, when discussing IBM  “industrial strength” and on the

false distinction between consumer and enterprise.

RedMonk has long called for IBM to abandon the somewhat false distinction between “consumer” and “enterprise”. What’s the main difference? Who pays the bill at the end of the month.

Every day I meet people at SAP that think complexity sucks. I also meet people who wear it on their chests like a medal. 

Creating barriers to entry through complexity is not a viable strategy. Creating competitive advantage through simplicity and fun is. Widgets, mashups, tagging, community and so on are not just cute. They are fundamental to the future of enterprise applications. It isn’t just the technology, it is the mindset. 


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17 thoughts on “I dislike the term business user..”

  1. What can I say but… hear hear!

    Good one. The distinction must have happened with the… Apple II? Nope, that had wordprocessor and VisiCalc, the PC? Ah, nope, the Atari!

  2. Thomas, you look better in neon green:-). You are absolutely correct. I’m not sure what term to use, however their is no difference between using Google and using an enterprise system like SAP. I’m not sure if this is a good analogy, but there is very little difference between the “interface” a race car driver uses and the one he uses in his personal car. Same with truck drivers. Not sure if this is a good analogy, let’s just say I agree with you…

  3. Thomas,
    I totally disagree here. Once you step into your cubicle, things should work totally different. Business processes need to be complex and hard to use to keep workers on their toes; it’s like exercise for the brain. Take for example my past experience with our procurement system. If buying a magic Enterprise pen would have been as easy as buying a normal everyday pen, then I just wouldn’t appreciate it as much, and in the long run, I would have been less productive. In other words, if I am getting paid to do something, it needs to be hard. This is how things have always worked; please refrain from rocking the boat in future posts.

    ewH 😉

  4. Agreed, but is it not possible for the widgets etc to work against simplicity – maybe it’s me but I’m finding a lot of social software to be far less intuitive/simple than I expected.

  5. I’ve often used the Ebay or Amazon reference to explain what I do when feedback on usability or poor adoption causes IT or HR Ops to grumble.

    “They got the training, so they should know what’s required of them.”

    Me: “Ever buy something off Amazon?”

    “Er, yes…?”

    Me: “Did you take the 2-hour training course?”

    “Huh? No! But…”

    Amazon maps well. Inventory modules, shopping carts, credit processing, user profiles, order history, contextual delivery, display engine, content management, etc. A complex collection of separate software that behave seamlessly and are obsessively driven to get the user to complete a transaction without support in a minimum amount of time. What’s the missing driver for ERP? Profit margin. I worked for a company for many years that operated on low margins and the amount of time spent of reducing friction in the transaction was an important lesson that’s lost in too many business services environments where the value of developer’s time overshadows that that of time lost in inefficient ESS/MSS.

    I’ll have to post a pic of me in my neon lime green Pearl Izumi jacket!

  6. Thomas, I like your post. But still disagree with the complexity point. It is the thing we all can make a motto and even reckon on, BUT. But business rules, overall environment, society and regulations are becoming more and more complex. We ourselves make them complex (a never ending story). That’s why for myself I still separate business (especially backoffice) from communication and social media (of course there are exceptions but they just confirm the rules).


  7. On the UI side, I won’t disagree with you, Thomas. I think the difference between enterprise and consumer applications has to do with governance and what’s all at stake in the back end.

    Agree that it should all be easy, intuitive, and fun – regardless.

    On another note: I’m trying to justify the slightly-more-expensive bike purchase to my wife and that isn’t going so well. . . tips?

  8. John,
    that is deserving of a long chat…
    I’m saying we shouldn’t start from the complex assumption, that that we should be constantly asking why cant this be easier. Defaulting to complexity is not a long term strategy…

  9. Hi Thomas,

    Too many thoughts!!! There is so much in this post above, it’s hard to get it all across in a consistent way, but I’ll try.

    First of all it’s good to see things are finally shifting at SAP. Your comment that re-design can only happen in a direct and open dialogue with the users of software makes me happy and scares me equally. I am happy because it is the right way, but I am also scared because doesn’t this mean (to some extend) that so far SAP software was developed without this in mind?

    As a developer myself, I am at SAP’s mercy, really. If you guys decide to do ALV or WebDynpro in a completely different way or design in the next release then I have to go along with it, because I can in most cases only design in the way that the SAP environment allows me to (if we leave for example BSP aside for a moment). Room for improvement, don’t you agree? SDN is a starting point, of course.

    And once SAP (or a logo partner) has done their work and implemented the product, who is going to make sure the latest standards of simplicity are adhered to and followed, especially with more and more development being done off-site? More emphasis on proper analysis? Maybe. In general I am trying to say that the environment is also part of the problem – and very hard for SAP to influence. But I am maybe preaching to the converted here.

    I agree with regards to the consumer/business user thing. Why the difference? And as you say, it is an excuse for complexity. Well put. Apple actually picked up on this a few years ago when their iLife software suite was released. I remember Steve Jobs announcing it by saying something like that iLife is “for everything that is not done in MS Office”. Very clever.

    A while ago now, Dan McWeeney spoke about how today’s users come quickly accustomed to speed, look, design & feel of the newest apps. This is exactly what this is all about.

    As far as “complexity is not a long term strategy” is concerned, you are right. But after almost 15+ years in IT (almost as much as you, I believe) I have seen a lot of people doing VERY WELL by pursuing exactly this path, unfortunately. On the bright side, I have been told many times how refreshing it is that some developers do things the correct way. There is hope…

    And one final word on the fun bit: I am totally convinced that fun is a great motivator. But I do hope that SAP’s understanding of it will not be to put a little tail-waggling dog in the corner who “wants to help me search my folders”. 😉

    But thank god we’re having these discussions now – they were long overdue.

    One great book I read on simplicity & design is Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think” (published by New Riders), by the way.


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