The UX of ERP vs Loose Platform

By | October 23, 2015

As a designer, I have always appreciated tight integrations. The fact that I can copy a bunch of cells in Excel and paste them into PowerPoint is just awesome. When designing Marketo, I thought of the solution as one small city. There was the neighborhood of making landing pages and the adjacent neighborhood of forms, which go on landing pages. Everything connected together tightly. The roads and bridges connected everything seamlessly. Let’s call this model the ERP model.

Enterprise resource planning (ERP) is business management software—typically a suite of integrated applications—that a company can use to collect, store, manage and interpret data from many business activities.

And then we started to grow rapidly. (A blessing and a curse) We acquired companies and integrated them in different ways. Sometimes, we did a full blown absorption into the mothership. However, we didn’t always have time for that. So I designed a portal where different experiences could be launched.  Each experience was “similar” but not exactly the same.  This is the same model Google is currently using. Their portal looks like this:


If you go to each of these, there is wide variety in the look and feel. The interfaces are different, as well as the implementation of Material Design. Add to this list to the 53 different properties Google owns and you have a design coordination nightmare. Can you imagine trying to have a grand unified theory of how all of these systems should work?

Every large company struggles with this problem. Here is the quandary: When you are a startup, you don’t have that many properties, so an ERP style system is beneficial. Customers love how the system is consistent and integrated. It’s only when you are successful that it starts to fracture.

I think you need to optimize as a startup for total experience and integrate tightly. Then, assuming you grow, you need to build a system where acquired properties could be part of the family, but not need to be identical and integrated tightly. Loose integrations will work then. To achieve this goal, you need a team that develops design languages like Material from Google. Additionally, you need tons of APIs to allow each property to integrate as they see fit. If you don’t have a strong API system, the loose integrations will seem like NO integrations.

The hardest thing is changing the culture from tight to loose integrations. It’s almost baked into the DNA. You have to be willing to change your mindset. What makes a company succeed in the beginning is not what makes them succeed in the end.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Bad implementations lead to bad outcomes. Bad UX leads to low sales. It takes just the right ingredients. Too much salt and it’s ruined.

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