Filling in user experience potholes: connecting applications for a smoother experience

We've all seen it. We've watched as user research participants struggle through what should be a simple task. We've witnessed them work across multiple off-the-shelf applications, each with their own idiosyncrasies and learning curves. The sum of these disjointed experiences are like driving over a paved, prairie road after the winter thaw: bumpy, unforgiving, and frustrating. But, each pothole is actually an incredible opportunity to address serious user experience challenges within organizations that purchase 3rd party software applications.

Companies will often work with multiple vendors to assist with various parts of their business. There are obvious cost savings rationale associated with purchasing an off-the-shelf product as opposed to developing software in-house. Some examples of this are: purchasing accounting software to track expense claims and purchasing issue-tracking software to organize the triage and resolution of calls to the call centre.

The unfortunate side effect of this is that their employees will now have to deal with several user interfaces throughout their day, each with varying level of usability, each possibly with a different login. This can lead to a very frustrating experience for users when you take into account each user’s unique needs and that each product is usually not designed with the other applications in mind. Over the years I’ve seen the full spectrum of experiences that accompany using 3rd party applications to assist with critical business processes. Some of these applications are just plain painful, some are a pleasure to work with, and some are merely ok—they get the job done with relatively few headaches and grey hairs. However, “3rd Party Software” doesn’t have to be a dirty phrase. With thoughtful attention to the user's experience across applications, we can design solutions to fill in those potholes, smoothing out the user's experience along the way.

Can’t we just all get along?

I recently listened to James Robertson give a talk at VanUE on Designing Behind the Firewall, where he showed many different applications of beautifully designed intranets for many enterprise clients. The point that really stood out for me in this presentation was an example where a web component was added to a user’s profile page that showed how many vacation days he/she had remaining. This is such a simple piece of information on the surface and one that every employee would like to easily keep track of, but rarely is this information available with such ease. Commonly this task would involve either logging into a separate time sheet application or submitting a request to the HR department for someone to manually retrieve the information.

This small but very valuable widget involved writing a small bit of custom code on the intranet to request the vacation allotment for the current user through an API, and displaying them on his/her profile page.

James highlights an awesome four-step process, which very succinctly sums up enhancements like the vacation allotment widget.
  1. Can we make it simpler?
  2. Does it make smart use of technology?
  3. Does it meet the needs of staff?
  4. Is it beautifully designed?

The vacation allotment look-up example matches up very well with his four rules:

  1. It makes the process of looking up vacation allotment really easy. Users need only view their profile page.
  2. It uses the API to retrieve the allotment using relatively little extra information.
  3. It allows staff to find out their allotment easily (thereby saving the employee’s time or human resources staff’s time).
  4. It can be integrated quite seamlessly into your already (hopefully) beautifully designed intranet.

One can agree that this simple widget makes the completion of this task easier and saves time and effort.

What other opportunities like this exist?

This example really got me thinking. There are probably countless other opportunities in so many businesses for improving the customer experience in ways like this. In a previous role, I was involved in an internal project that had one purpose: making time sheet entry suck less.

Let’s be honest. No one really enjoys time sheets. If you’ve ever worked in a job where you had to track your time for every activity you did on a daily basis, you know what I’m talking about. At the time we were using a time sheet system so finicky and painful that it made the already unpleasant task of time entry unbearable. The project produced a replacement interface for the 3rd party time sheet application streamlined to serve the majority of staff. It also added some interesting social components. Many of the annoying barriers were removed, and what was left was a slick interface that didn’t get in the way and was a joy to use. The surprising thing was that employees now didn’t actually mind daily time entry, because the application was a delight to use.

Better still, (with a little work) the API-based new interface also allowed the team to eventually replace the back-end timesheet application, but keep the delightful user interface.

Think of how many other medial or time-consuming tasks could be improved with smart application of design in the right areas. In these cases a little effort can go a long way.

The API is the key

What made the vacation allotment widget and the new time entry interface possible? A robust API for the vender’s application. APIs are game-changers that have become a key criteria in vendor selection. This is only going to increase in the future.

We’re seeing proof of the power of a good API today. In Karen McGrane’s article "Adapting ourselves to Adaptive Content", she evaluates the strategies of two competing publishers, NPR and Condé Naste for handling the consumption of their content on mobile devices. Both had very different approaches to serving up mobile content. Condé Naste chose to duplicate their efforts to try to deliver their content in a very controlled way, while NPR put their efforts into creating a very robust API. As a result, NPR was able to deliver their content to countless numbers of sources, leaving the presentation of that content up to the source requesting the content. Long story short, NPR’s strategy of heavy investment in their API was very successful and meant they could focus on what they do best, producing fantastic content.

As another example, Zapier has developed their entire business on allowing software applications to talk to each other via their individual APIs. Want every WuFoo form completion to automatically create a new lead in Salesforce? They’ve got you covered. Want to add a new Gmail contact to a MailChimp mailing list? They’ve got you covered too.

A great API allows us as User Experience Designers the freedom to integrate many 3rd party systems together in a workflow that’s easier, seamless, efficient, and consistent.

Vendors don’t know what they don’t know

Vendors look to build products meant to accomplish a particular set of tasks in an efficient way. Customer organizations that purchase multiple off the shelf applications then run the risk of creating a very disjointed and inconsistent overall user experience for their users.

This is where User Experience professionals come in. There’s a huge opportunity here to improve how these business systems interact by looking at our clients' processes end to end and identifying the opportunities for improvement. By seamlessly integrating 3rd party applications together into a consistent experience, barriers between applications can be eliminated, empowering users to focus on the task and not the technology used to complete the task.


Organizations are going to purchase off-the-shelf software to address business needs and the usability of these applications is going to vary. This is a reality that we can't expect to change any time soon.

By looking at our client’s unique combination of systems thoughtfully, we can design a seamless experience, leverage APIs to help applications work well together and make processes more efficient. Effectively, we can fill in the potholes in the employee experience and make for a smoother ride for our user's throughout their work day.

The most important thing we can do as designers is to always be on the lookout for little opportunities that can make a huge impact on the engagement of our client’s users.

Learn about using user research to improve customer experiences.