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Enterprise Software UX and PLM: Another Dropped Ball?

Most enterprise software, including traditional PLM, is difficult to use. How can PLM change course and become an application that delights users?

This is the final installment of our series Where (Traditional) PLM Dropped the Ball. Catch up by reading Part I and Part II.

Users of enterprise software spend 9% of their work time toggling between applications and then getting reoriented. That’s according to a study by the Harvard Business Review, summarized in the article “How Much Time and Energy Do We Waste Toggling Between Applications?” 

And while it’s not surprising that complex enterprise technology environments hinder usability, I was floored by some of the other results. 

  • Upon tracking 137 users, in three Fortune 500 companies for over a month, the authors found that workers toggled between applications roughly 1,200 times per day. 
  • For one large consumer goods company, a single supply-chain transaction required each person involved to switch 350 times between 22 different applications and unique websites. This equates to 3,600 switches per person in just one day!

Surely, enterprise technology providers can do better. 

We know that context-switching is one problem of enterprise software usability. To see what else determines a productive UX, let’s look at a recent article from userpilot, which studied 98 SaaS applications. While the research specifies software-as-a-service solutions, it’s fair to assume that the findings would largely hold true to on-premise applications as well.

Far and away, the top determinant of being easy to use is that “non-technical employees can easily learn how to use it.” 

Well… yeah. Sort of a no-brainer isn’t it? 

It begs the question: how easy is PLM for non-technical users?

If you’ve followed this blog series, or some of the other publications by Propel, you’ll know the answer: Not well at all.

How Can PLM Software Deliver an Exemplary UX for All Users?

PLM has failed to deliver on its promise of being the enterprise app for ALL product stakeholders because it’s still primarily limited to design, engineering, and R&D usage. 

And, since most commercial PLM systems date back 10, 15, or even 20 years, it’s easy to see why it’s been difficult for PLM to evolve. They were built on old technologies that haven’t kept pace with modern software UX advancements.

So, beyond just looking dated and clunky, they also tend to be rigid and inflexible. This makes them a drag to use and a challenge to adapt to specific use cases or for certain roles. 

Take, for example, sales and marketing—critical stakeholders in the processes of product introduction and launch. How well are they are served by today’s PLM systems? Not very.

All is not lost. There are 3 frontiers that, if properly addressed, can elevate PLM from being a “have to use” to being a “want to use” application.

Support Quick Work and Deep Work

When systems are cumbersome to power users, they are doubly frustrating for those casual users who only venture into the system periodically. Consider an alternate approach. 

Rippling is an HR management software application for tracking time off, managing employee onboarding, and the like. It has a full desktop web experience which provides access to all its capabilities and a mobile experience with a more limited set of functionality. 

But one of the most common Rippling use cases for people managers is to approve time off requests. This can be done within the web or mobile app for sure. But it can also be done via a simple reply of “approve” to the PTO email request. For simple approvals, it saves the manager from the need to stop, log in to a new app, get reoriented, perform the task, and exit.

Instead, the work can be done without leaving email, (still) the most essential business application in the world. 

PLM systems could do the same: meeting casual users where they work, rather than requiring them to context-shift into unfamiliar applications. 

This would reduce angst and friction for what are meant to be quick work items (certain types of approvals, for example), especially when the required approvers are not regular users of the full PLM application. But, it also would provide all the appropriate context, access control, and security necessary for ensuring a key PLM value proposition: complete data integrity.

Imagine the next logical step of weaving PLM into their most essential business workflows and systems (Slack comes to mind). 

And all of this can be done with little or no UI overhead or context switching and without casual users even knowing that they are engaging with a PLM system. 

Sometimes the best UX is no UX.

Provide Executive Insights

In most cases, buyers of PLM systems are not users of the system. Why is this? 

I think the answer is that there hasn’t been enough in it for them. And because they haven’t been active users, they haven’t necessarily driven adoption as robustly for PLM as say CROs have for CRM.

Conversely, what if PLM systems offered a richer way for general managers, heads of business units, and executives to track, trend, and manage their books of business against meaningful process and financial metrics over time? Perhaps even by allowing companies to benchmark their own performance against industry peers.

Wouldn’t it be cool for a GM to seek out their PLM system to answer the question: how do my launch process and new product revenue compare to that of my closest competitors?

This would certainly be a shot in the arm for PLM adoption and would undoubtedly lead to broader and deeper enterprise adoption. 

In turn, it would give executives a better feel for both the “art of the possible'' as well as any UX challenges facing their user community.

Utilize Modern UX Components

PLM systems that originated 20 years ago have a big challenge when it comes to UX modernization. Replatforming potentially delays any new innovations while possibly alienating customers. 

In this regard, modern solutions such as the Propel platform have understood the importance of UX from day one. Hence, it’s built on Salesforce, one of the most flexible composable frameworks for creating custom-built, role-based UI—all with just clicks, no code.

This gives Propel a rich, future-proof platform from which to deliver industry and process-specific solutions. Plus, it makes for a game-changing user experience. 

Read all about Propel’s upcoming UI enhancements in our Winter 2023 Release Walkthrough: UI for Tomorrow’s Product Company.

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Post by
Tom Shoemaker
VP of Product Marketing, Propel

Tom Shoemaker is the VP of Product Marketing at Propel. In this role, he’s responsible for product messaging and positioning, sales enablement, and voice of customer programs. Prior to Propel, Shoemaker was Chief Marketing Officer of itslearning, a Scandinavian-based edtech provider, where he led the company’s marketing and business development efforts. Prior to itslearning, he held numerous leadership positions at PTC, including pre-sales, R&D, and marketing. Most recently, he was VP Enterprise Marketing. Over his 20-year+ tenure, Shoemaker was responsible for the go-to-market strategy and product launch of PTC’s primary solutions, including Windchill and Creo.

Fun Fact: In high school, Tom appeared on Brainstormers, a local station TV quiz show.

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Tom Shoemaker