User Experience Design for Back-Office Processes

It seems that in many people’s minds, UX is considered most useful in situations where sites or systems are built for customer-facing situations. This is true, UX is very useful for this. However, although there are fewer users in back-office applications, the use-cases are far more complex and the numbers of different user roles are greater. Back-office processes are critical to the success of a business, because if you sell something well but deliver poorly, your sales can’t be sustained. Successful enterprises put considerable thought and energy and resources into fine-tuning every aspect of their businesses.

Back-office Horror

I am reminded of a company that had an excellent business model and great marketing. Their sales were going through the roof. I was called because they had hired a novice programmer, a young fellow who was quite out of his depth. He was backing up their databases in a way that actually damaged the files, and was sharing the data in the files improperly. They were also storing credit card information in an open and unencrypted file, which they would ftp nightly to their local server! Let’s just say, it is amazing they weren’t immediately hacked. Their whole system ended up crashing and they lost all of their data in a way that couldn’t be recovered, and they ended up closing their doors shortly afterwards. This is the kind of dramatic effect that truly awful and unqualified back-office practices can have.

The Usual Situation

But the more usual situation is not so dramatic. There are reasonable security practices. But people are sharing crucial data through emails and spreadsheets that get passed around. There end up being dozens or hundreds of such files with several versions of critical files, with no centralized way to really search them, with little thought given to the overall picture. There is redundant manual data entry into disparate systems, and no good practice for deploying upgraded versions of these systems. I think that whether a business is large or small, there is some degree of mess involved with back-office operations. Successful companies are very concerned to streamline things and to clean up such messes.

Business Workflow Cancer

A common problem in large businesses as well as small businesses is that user roles develop organically, and certain hyper-responsible workers take on several critical roles to keep things going. Such people become solitary repositories of knowledge about critical workflows for which the business owners and executives may well have no knowledge. This can become a critical bottleneck to growth, because it can seem impossible to split such a person’s job out to two or three people. So such people, though extremely well-meaning and even critical to the daily functions of the business, become a kind of cancer. Back-office workflow analysis and UX can tease out these roles, define them clearly, and create systems and interfaces to enable sustainable growth for a business. In this way, back-office UX is absolutely critical to the health of a growing company.

Legacy Systems

This kind of thinking is also critical for companies that are hopelessly dependent upon older legacy IT systems. It can seem impossible to grow when a business is utterly dependent upon an outdated system which still seems to work. Requirements analysis and UX design for such back-office systems can not only craft a more up-to-date profitable system, it can craft a sensible upgrade path which will not immediately throw the business into shock.

Executive Reporting and Decision Making

Furthermore, business leaders and executives need great reporting and summary data to make important decisions for maximum business growth. Back-office systems must be crafted with this in mind – data must be gathered and presented in a way to enable executives to do their jobs well. If a back-office system is not providing this kind of data, changes must be made for the business to remain competitive into the future.

In conclusion, good requirements analysis and great User Experience design principles are enormously useful in helping businesses with their back-office practices. Such work is of enormous value to workplace morale, profitability, increased sales, better quality service, better decision making, and much more.

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