User Experience (UX) Trumps SLAs

Expectations and UX are the two core elements defining success in Enterprise today. Together they are changing the way we buy, consume and supply technology. UX can help address both the value and the use of products.
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There are numerous articles that talk about the recent changes in the world and what they mean for the workplace; I've written some of them myself. Over and over, the same foundational factors get repeated - we are always on and connected (enabled by mobile and cloud), the frequent debate about the "new" multi-tasking norm, that the data is all out there in the info sphere... This repetition is not necessarily a bad thing, (especially as there still seem to be people that think these things are the future), but the upshot is that design and User Experience (UX) are now a fundamental aspect in the delivery of successful products and services.

I recently read an interesting article on workplace expectations. It seems to me that the expectations that appear ever rising have affected the more traditional expectations of product and service delivery, which used to be managed by Service Level Agreements (or SLA's - a typical contract between a service provider and receiver, to define what the customer will receive e.g. a cloud service might have a guaranteed uptime of 99.9%).

This article looked deeper into the impact of design and deployment of Enterprise Solutions as it pertains to the new wave of millennials that are flooding the workplace and bringing a whole new dynamic on how the rest of the workforce interacts, communicates and stays connected in and out of the office. This is becoming more and more poignant because "by 2016, almost 80 percent of PwC's workforce will be comprised of Millennials!" Just re-read that for a second - within 2 years, approximately 80% of a tier 1 consulting firm's employees will be under 35!

Now, I must say that I do not personally like sweeping generalizations across generational differences, but avoiding or simply being slow to adjust to this dramatic change will result in failure. Delivering successful enterprise solutions & products is going to DEPEND on the ability to assimilate the changing expectations and capitalize on the new normal.

To me, it isn't necessarily just the age, or the year in which people were born (Millennials are 1980-2005 which, in my opinion, is far too broad in terms of this subject); it is all about when you learnt how to learn. In fact, this is one of the points brought out in the article above - the expectations of millennials are being adopted and inherited by other generations.

Think back to the time when you were absorbing the world around you at an incredible pace and had a thirst to explore - what was the world like? What interactions were you accustomed to? Were you there with the dial phone (where you tried not to have too many friends with 9's in their number) was it the party lines or Skype? It was at these times that you started creating your own baseline for expectations and interactions.

The rate of these changes has also become incredibly fast. What used to be a decade long generational change is now taking place in a matter of a few short years. The chart (click to expand) below illustrates how some of the main changes in computers, telephones and the internet have become increasingly rapid. It also shows the generations, and various "times of learning" (roughly, the first 18 years of life) for each, depending if you were born at the beginning, middle or end.


Another factor is the shortening cycle of introduction. How long did it take before TV was widely adopted? Versus the computer at home. Versus the internet, cell, smartphone... We seem to be shortening these cycles ever more and more.

So, why should we care that a "critical mass of the new generation begins to shake up the status quo of the global work culture". Well, as one demographic group of users of Enterprise Solutions, millennials impact us as employees, who we also want to adopt the products we deploy. They have grown up seeing these changes and becoming accustomed to them at a young age (especially the younger ones). They do not, as users, tolerate a bad experience and will quickly look for a work around. For example, they may have a reputation for being "typically impatient" but really it is that their expectation baseline is fundamentally different. It is just what they are accustomed to. If you grew up with the dial phone, simply clicking a button to talk to someone across the world seems like magic. If you grew up with Hangouts, you more than likely do not have the patience for an audio bridge in the workplace. What do you mean I have to dial a number and a pin?!?! Gah! Imagine organizing an evening out with friends using the postal service - and then waiting for hours as one of them was late.

More importantly, the oldest of this younger generation are now making their way to leadership positions - roles where they have some element of decision-making power and influence. As a crowd they are slowly changing from a single user adopting change - to being the person shaping the (IT) world to their own expectations - making technical and business decisions that affect themselves and all those around them.

In fact, this older set (which is why 1980-2005 is much too broad a range), have a unique position. Those born in the earlier part could be called the "Bridge Generation" - the last generation to live through seeing the most drastic changes, given that the latter do not really know of a world without internet or mobile phones. This gives them a unique core understanding of their user base and a translation between the generations before and after them.

Think of the power this generation has grown up with. For example, Google didn't exist when they were born. Then it was just a search engine, but now, amongst everything else they are achieving, Google is making waves in education which will quickly compound the disruption to Enterprise IT. Why? Because the youngest of that generation will have grown up with it there, used it during their learning years and have it as a familiar baseline - and they will soon too become the users of Enterprise technology as they move into the world of work. Their expectations will be set before they even have their first job. This, combined with the "Bridge Generation" in decision-making power, will be incredibly powerful in gaining a stronghold in the Enterprise domain.

While we need to plan and design for this bridge generation, we will still have the "sliding window" of users in enterprise to deal with for some years to come. Another favorite that is heard all over the shop is "my 13yr old son doesn't use this". Well, let's be honest, today in Enterprise we are not designing software and services solely for 13 year olds. However, we do still need to apply thought and process around the constructs and interactions they may use, then balance this with current Enterprise needs and requirements. For example, will all enterprise users post to a wall to communicate instead of email right now? No. But, will they have increased expectations as they get accustomed to these newer experiences? Yes.

While the sliding window needs to be thought through to increase adoption levels and maximize the chance of success, there is indeed cross pollination. The ways in which these Millennials are bringing in their expectations (and capabilities) and forming the workspace are starting to be adopted by the older generations. Historically, this is unheard of. Think about fashion, for example. While styles may get repeated it never goes backwards - you do not tend to see 55 year olds with the crotch of their jeans around their knees.

This could be because the way in which the Millennials are working is directly relevant to the older generations who have found themselves living in this "new world". Learning from the newer generation and adopting their styles is advantageous to them and since the cost-benefit is clear, it is easier for them to adopt the newer behaviors.

For example, you see older generations on Facebook, online dating, online banking - all these things that once they could not fathom. Simply, they too have seen the value in the more efficient and better experiences that their younger colleagues have exposed them to.

Now to the point: How does this affect the SLA? That good old service level agreement that a team comes up with, committing to delivery by making somebody else sign on the dotted line. Well, here is where we see this expectation gap come to a head. SLA's are defined and measured based on what is "acceptable" to a company, or a team, or a leader - rarely the individual. Even when the individual's input is captured, their expectation or experience of a solution is not taken into account. We see examples of this in Enterprise all the time:

CIO at Company X: "This account is red for Client C!!! We need to fix it."
Account Manager at Company X: "But my score card is green!"
CIO at Company X : "Well the employees are not satisfied and are not using it. The Client wants to pull out of the contract unless we fix it!!!"

Expectations and UX are the two core elements defining success in Enterprise today. Together they are changing the way we buy, consume and supply technology. UX can help address both the value and the use of products. In focusing on the strategic thinking of UX, you can understand your users and filter this through to the design, the deployment method, the support, availability and security needs that are all becoming more and more important in the "Millennial" workplace. You can stitch together the pieces into an experience that works for everyone, accounted for in all stages of the lifecycle and bridging that expectation gap.

It would seem that SLA's get beaten by Expectations. These are then in turn delivered by UX.


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