The real cost of bad UX in business apps

It's not just about internal users. In the end, bad UX erodes the CX.

You might think that usability challenges in applications that your organization uses internally will only affect the productivity and happiness of your own employees. I don’t think the impact is limited just behind your corporate firewall. Instead, I believe crappy user experience (UX) in your business apps will erode the customer experience (CX), too.

I recently came across the above photo from my eXtremeCRM 2016 Warsaw conference session. As it sometimes happens, I was impressed by what smart words I have been able to put on my own slides. And then mostly forgot about them, until viewing a “your day in history” photo reel.

It made me remember something I’m still passionate about. Not merely the creation of new apps - rather the improvement of user experience. We have an ever growing amount of amazing low-code tools for app makers (now with Copilot based AI generation, too). Yet we don’t always stop to think about what the apps are doing to the end users. How they make them feel & what’s the outcome from that impact.

Back when I was working with CRM systems exclusively (before Power Platform became a thing), I used to be obsessed about UI design. Which is a strange focus area in that particular domain, given how little room there was/is for changing the UX of Dynamics 365 CRM apps (aka model-driven Power Apps). As the icing on the cake: I was doing everything without custom code.

As it often happens, the constraints give you focus. When Dynamics CRM 2013 came and reimagined the user interface of Microsoft's CRM system, I wanted to make the most of it. I even wrote a book chapter titled "Designing a great user experience" in the CRM 2013 QuickStart publication - a joint effort by several Microsoft BizApps MVPs back then.

I did not write about this subject because of UX design studies or anything formal like that. I did it all as a citizen UX designer. I merely observed the many real world challenges that users of enterprise CRM systems encountered. Often these were inflicted upon them by business requirements that turned the systems into monster forms with hidden business logic and layers upon layers of process details invisible to the poor end users.

But what's the connection to CX, though? UX stands for User Experience, whereas CX is about Customer Experience. The customers of an organization aren't using the CRM system, are they? Not directly, of course. My reasoning on the 2016 presentation slide was the following chain of events:

  1. Your business apps have bad UX.

  2. As a result, user adoption remains low.

  3. Which means not all needed customer data is captured.

  4. Your processes cannot be further automated as the systems lack data to work on.

  5. You’re left with limited options to improve CX in digital channels.

  6. Customers switch to competitors who can offer them a more seamless digital experience.

Does that sound plausible? I think it does, even if proving the exact cause and effect isn’t that easy. Hearing your employees complain about the internal systems can be observed at the workplace. Seeing your customers bounce from your cumbersome touchpoints and opting for a provider that doesn’t force them to call a support number but rather let’s them get things done online - that all happens in the virtual world, outside your office walls.

In the end, the big issue with low CRM adoption isn't the inaccurate sales funnels and forecasts. You can do those with Excel. Often that's what ends up happening anyway, when the CRM system doesn't support real-life sales mgmt needs. Sure, it sucks, but life goes on and deals get closed anyway.

What you can’t do with Excel data is automate your business processes. Including ones that directly affect the paying customers. You face a hard limit on innovation and improvement that companies with better customer data assets can aim for. Competitors will outpace you if they figure out a way to not lose all the data that you’re throwing away because of clunky internal systems.

Note that this is a prime example of “quality over quantity”. These days it's rarely about the lack of systems, i.e. not having enough technology at your organization’s disposal. It often is about the lack of true fit between what the systems could do and what the business actually does. Despite of big CRM projects and digitalization initiatives that eat up the budgets, the resulting machine as a whole can still deliver subpar outputs. These may even decline after your new system launch, once novelty wears out and everyday reality kicks in.

This is a touchy subject to address from a management perspective. Admitting that just building systems to meet requirements doesn't solve the problem - especially when the involved parties are professionals in their field. The domain experts for business processes & the system experts for business apps. Who's to blame for the failure? Pro tip: it is not the end users of these systems.

Thinking about my own experiences, no one pushed me into obsessing over the UX details in my CRM career. I was never really rewarded for going the extra mile either. I mostly did it on my own time, for the benefit of the community. I was just one guy who was empathetic towards the end users and had enough time & motivation.

Your business performance management can’t rely on there always being “some guy/gal” there to do more than what has been asked for. Because too often the incentives in business application projects are aligned against this kind of goals. Consultants face a growing backlog of requirements and a pressure to deliver new features as quickly as possible. Adding “oh, and make it easy to use” as one more requirement is hardly the right approach. Even Dilbert knew that already back in 2001:

In the end, the majority of features that are “required” will not really matter to your business. Chances are many of them will also get used either A) never or B) very little, due to C) them being too difficult/complex for the everyday life of users. The big question is: who is allowed to say this out loud? It takes a level trust and a sense of security that doesn’t just naturally emerge in your average customer/vendor relationship. It needs to be earned and built.

I believe most people care about the experiences of other humans, whether those others happen to be in the role of a user or a customer. Yet when it comes to business life, sometimes we struggle with these softer metrics. It’s easier for us to feel like we’re acting professional when talking about monetary value. What’s funny is that even though productivity and wellbeing of employees has very tangible cost impact, it doesn’t feel as real as money handed out to you by customers.

That’s why bringing in the CX perspective is useful, even when dealing with (mostly) internal facing technologies like Microsoft Power Platform and Dynamics 365 apps. If you can demonstrate a connection between what new or existing business is lost due to poor usability of the tools the employees have to work with, it’s going to resonate a lot more with the leaders who can make sure such issues get addressed. As opposed to just hoping some tech individual out there cares about removing unnecessary clicks and screens from the apps.

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