At this point in the NAPA UX blog series, it should come as no surprise that the topic of user experience (UX) is quite hot. Everywhere you look, companies are rushing to hire UX professionals. For many of us in anthropology, this is a welcome opportunity, especially in light of the dwindling job opportunities in academia.
But not all UX roles are the same, and some may be a better or worse fit for our skills and interests. One often overlooked, or at least less discussed, role is enterprise user experience (EUX).
What is Enterprise User Experience (EUX)?
EUX involves the application of research and design theories and methods to build and improve software used by employees in businesses. This type of software is typically highly complex and built for diverse, but specialized users. Common examples include project management, customer relationship management (CRM), and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
Unlike consumer applications, enterprise software is often locked up behind firewalls, and rarely ever seen by the public. As a result, EUX may lack some of the wow-factor of working on disruptive consumer apps like Airbnb, Spotify, or Uber, but it is no less important, and arguably more so.
The argument for why it is more important is that operational effectiveness is the key to the success of all businesses, and increasingly, software plays a role in that process. Furthermore, if a business is to create and support amazing consumer products, it will almost certainly need numerous enterprise software applications to manage the process.
What is Enterprise Software?
By this point, you may be asking what enterprise software is, and it’s an excellent question. Unfortunately, if you ask two people, and you will almost certainly get two different answers.
Some people insist that the term “enterprise” refers to the scope of the software or the size of the workforce using it. Others, like myself, make use of a less-restrictive sense of the term to include any software used by employees within a business to carry out the function of their job.
For the sake of this article, we will be using the latter definition, and though the potential types of enterprise software would be too numerous to list, the goals and challenges of EUX are similar.
Goals & Challenges of EUX
Like consumer UX, EUX is concerned with the utility, usability, and usefulness of the software. Utility, in this case, relates to whether or not the software application offers the correct and required functionality based on the user’s needs. Usability refers to how easy or difficult the application is to use. Utility and usability come together to dictate how useful the application is to the user.
In all types of UX, the goal is to deliver a useful product, but that can be particularly challenging with enterprise software for a few reasons. First, the applications often are feature-rich. Many features can be a challenge because they create more scenarios for the usefulness of a product to break down by the simple virtue of offering more points of failure.
Next, enterprise apps often deal with significantly more data than typical consumer apps. The result of this may be the need to visualize complicated datasets in real time, but it can also show up in more benign problems like having to figure out how to elegantly display tabular data that might be 64 columns wide.
Finally, the stakeholders of business applications exist in a dizzying array of relationships, and they have varying needs and goals. That is not to say that consumers are not diverse. Consumers certainly are. But enterprise software projects are often initiated by executives on behalf of the employees who need to use the software. Frequently, the former does not truly understand the needs of the latter, and you may or may not have access to the boots on the ground needed to conduct the kind of research required to build a great application.
For all of these reasons and more, building useful enterprise software can be challenging. But despite the challenges, EUX can be very rewarding, and anthropologists are well suited to navigate these troubled waters.
The Role & Methods of a EUX Researcher
Like in consumer UX, mature EUX teams divide up the work between specialists who focus on either research or design. While there is often a bit of crossover and a substantial degree of cooperation between team members, these are different roles for very good reasons.
Few people are excellent at both research and design, and aside from smaller businesses or immature teams who need generalists, specialists are best suited to the challenging demands of EUX.
Within that dichotomy, most anthropologists are likely better suited to user experience research (UXR) given their training, and with just a bit of reframing, the anthropological toolkit of academia can be adapted quite well to working in industry.
The research practice of EUX, like anthropological research, is a systematic approach to collecting and analyzing data. The research may occur in various phases of the software development lifecycle and take on various forms, such as discovery, definition, or evaluation research. Furthermore, during those various phases, researchers make use of multiple methods to achieve different goals.
For example, when a business wants to create a new disruptive innovation, discovery research using exploratory and open-ended methods is often employed to uncover broader culture patterns or latent needs. Conversely, if incremental innovation is required to define a prototype or improve an existing application, definition or evaluative research may be respectively employed while making use of more structured research methods.
Likewise, the methods EUX researchers use vary, though they typically include qualitative methods such as rapid ethnographies, interviews, contextual inquiries, diary studies, personas, card sorting, and usability testing.
EUX researchers are also increasingly being asked to make use of more quantitative methods, whether alone or in partnership with data scientists, as well as other quantitative analytical tools such as UserZoom or UserTesting.
While it is true that EUX research makes use of all of the phases and methods of research I just mentioned, it is also worth pointing out that individual researchers may not.
Junior researchers, for example, often start on evaluative projects while senior researchers frequently get assigned to the more exploratory projects. Alternatively, an individual researcher or small team of researchers might work on a long-term project that starts with exploratory work but matures to definition and evaluative work, and the project may not get back to exploratory work for some time, if ever.
It all depends on the organizational structure and the projects, but it is worth noting because if you are looking to apply to a UX role, and you have a research preference, it is a question you should ask during a job interview.
Finding a EUX Job
Finding a EUX job is no different from a consumer UX job, though the hiring team may be looking for some additional skills or knowledge. Specifically, they may be looking for additional subject matter expertise as it relates to the type of software application.
For example, if you are being interviewed for a EUX role in an investment bank, having some knowledge of banking will be to your advantage. While this won’t be a requirement of all EUX roles, having the ability to demonstrate that you have subject matter expertise can go a long way in highly specialized industries, especially regulated industries.
You will likely also need to reframe your CV into a one-page resume that can demonstrate outcomes. Business is about results, not intentions. You will need to prove that if hired, you can move the needle. All the academic coursework and fieldwork won’t matter if you can’t solve the business problem.
If you get an interview and pass the first round of run-of-the-mill questions with a recruiter, you will also need a portfolio that clearly articulates your ability to solve problems. With each portfolio case study, you need to define the business problem, detail what you did, and demonstrate the outcome. If it was a failure, calling attention to lessons learned can also be useful. Either way, keep it simple, and be open about your contribution if you worked on a team.
The portfolio will likely be used as a centerpiece to having a conversation with a hiring manager or a cross-functional team from the business. Don’t be scared of this. This portion of the interview process is a wonderful opportunity to show off the way you think about solving problems.
As the portfolio review wraps up, you will then have time to ask your own questions. This is also a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate the inquisitive nature of being an anthropologist. Within the timeframe of the interview window, probe each person you speak with to conduct a rapid and mini ethnography of the workplace. You are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you, and so this kind of questioning demonstrates interest while providing you with the data you need to make a prudent decision.
If in a cross-functional team interview, it is also an opportunity to point out the strengths of anthropologists as team players and the fact that we are ideal culture-brokers who excel in researching across departments. Remember, anthropologists are very adept at navigating the different beliefs, languages, rituals, work practices, and goals of different teams and team members. Helping the hiring team realize this skill will contribute to why they may want to hire you over another social scientist.
But please, just because we are social scientists does not mean we need to discuss theory all the time, and especially not in an interview (if not otherwise directly asked).
Does Theory Still Matter?
Yes, of course, but future EUX practitioners need to realize that businesses are about results, and often, the people in charge don’t care how you get to those results.
While I have certainly had my fair share of conversations about my methods, findings, and insights, I have seldom been asked about the theory that informed my UX insights.
Don’t get me wrong; you should read widely on business anthropology and other related bodies of knowledge to stay abreast of theory, and leverage theory where possible. But there is a right time and place for everything, and theory time is rarely in an interview or board room.
That does not mean our work cannot be rigorous. It just means we need to take an emic perspective and holistically appreciate the culture of the varied stakeholders we work alongside within EUX.
If you want to pursue a career in EUX and you already have a UX background, then you likely have the necessary skills to make a move, and you should start applying. If you lack a UX background, then the journey may be a little more complicated, but it is still obtainable.
The first step is to assess whether or not your past anthropology experience lends itself to a resume and portfolio that can get you a job in EUX. If yes, then it is likely as straightforward as reframing past anthropology projects in business-speak to demonstrate your research process. Remember, focus on the problem, what you did, and the outcome.
If your previous experience does not lend itself to applying to UX jobs, then you may want to consider a certificate or bootcamp. Options typically range in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars and vary in depth of knowledge and required time. A respectable online option is the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF). The yearly subscription is affordable, and the quality of the material is excellent.
If you do choose a bootcamp, make sure it offers enough UXR experience. If you are not looking to be a UX designer, you don’t want to pay for a bootcamp that focuses primarily on design.
Finally, remember, it’s often who you know. Many people in the recruiting industry say that near 75% of jobs are never posted. Networking is key. Consider joining the Anthrodesign Slack community, industry associations like the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA), and attending relevant industry conferences such as the Rosenfeld Media Enterprise Experience conference or EPIC.
Thanks to Terry Redding for feedback on drafts of this post.