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Understanding how technology has been adopted thus far can give us insights on the tech trends we’re seeing today and help us predict what’s coming next. Here’s how the worlds of consumer software products and business software products collided, resulting in a landscape of increasingly homogeneous and user-friendly products that bridge the gap between B2B and B2C.

1. Computer adoption

As computer technology adoption expanded, businesses had more software choices. Changing dynamics within companies gave employees more say, which gave a competitive edge to software with a better UX.

Fast-forward to 2021, when the Pew Research Center found that only 13% of American adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year had no web-enabled device (a smartphone, tablet or computer) at home – and that situation was practically nonexistent at higher income levels.

Moreover, 85% of American adults are online daily, and nearly a third (31%) said they are “almost constantly online.” This heavy consumer app usage created tremendous market pressure to produce apps with the best UX.

Most early users were introduced to computers in work settings. Of course, home computers are common now, but even as of 2000, only 62% of Americans were using laptops or desktops. In other words, as ubiquitous as computers have become, the adoption process didn’t happen overnight, and the way computers and subsequent devices were adopted has had a massive impact on UI and UX design.

2. Shifting employee expectations

Initially, most people viewed computers as business devices, so they focused on the way those devices could make work tasks more efficient. Little thought was given to how attractive a piece of software was, because the alternative was doing everything by hand. Since there was very little comparison and technology was already being pushed to its limits (for the time), the general idea was that any software was better than no software at all.

Employee opinions on software were essentially irrelevant – not only because there were fewer products to choose from, but also because in the 1990s and even the early 2000s, work culture was one of hierarchies and formalities, not one where employees felt they could or should dictate how they worked. If work systems weren’t user-friendly, employees had to get over it and use them anyway.

Puneet Gangal, CEO and founder of Aciron Consulting (a business management and IT consulting firm based in Boston), has been in the technology and management field for more than 20 years and seen the shift firsthand.

“For a long time, businesses were prioritizing functionality over design for their internal applications – it didn’t matter what it looked like, as long as it got the job done,” Gangal said. “Employees used these systems because they had no other choices. Now, however, employees have gotten so accustomed to using intuitive, beautifully designed consumer products in their personal life, they are demanding a similar experience for their business software.”

While many clickbait articles blame millennials for the increasing demands business users make of their work technology, the experts we talked to seemed unanimous in their opinion that the shift has more to do with availability and exposure than age or generation.

Adam Conrad, a software consultant and business owner with 10 years of experience as a UX engineer, explained the demand for beautifully designed work software as a natural step in the evolution of business technology.

“First, we simply had to put out products online to increase distribution,” he said. “Then, when everyone had their products online, it evolved to become about creating a great experience around those products. We are simply at that point now where there is enough market saturation that we require strong brands to distinguish ourselves, and a brand includes the experience of using our products and interacting with the employees.”

According to Gangal and several other UI/UX experts we consulted, companies that fail to offer employees easy-to-use systems now run the risk of their staff going rogue to find their own solutions.

In addition to a shift in work culture and an explosion of lower-cost SaaS solutions, the way people interact with technology has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. People are increasingly working from home, setting their own hours, contracting, accessing business systems on the go and demanding work-life balance. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend. All this has been possible thanks largely to the trend away from high-cost locally hosted software and toward SaaS solutions and mobile apps, driven by the widespread adoption of smartphones.

3. Influence of mobile devices and apps

Smartphone ownership has contributed more to how people view and use business technology than you might think. In 2000, while only 62% of Americans were using computers, an even smaller percentage (53%) owned cell phones.

However, by 2014, a whopping 90% of American adults owned cell phones, and cell phone ownership was never as closely tied to education or socioeconomic status as computer ownership and usage was (and still is).

The entry-level price point for cell phones lowered very quickly once usage became common, and when smartphones were first released by Apple (2007) and HTC (2008), the mobile online experience got a lot better too. Suddenly, if consumers wanted to get online but couldn’t afford a laptop or desktop (plus the costs of an internet connection), they could get a smartphone. In fact, in 2021, 27% of people in low-income households relied solely on their smartphones for internet connectivity, according to the Pew Research Center data.

In the early 2000s, the first version of downloading add-ons onto phones arrived in the form of custom ringtones and wallpapers. In 2008, things changed again when Apple debuted the App Store and Google released Android Market (which later became Google Play).

When the App Store launched, it offered a mere 500 applications, paid and free, for download. Now, both Android and Apple stores offer millions of applications, allowing users to customize their devices in ways they couldn’t before.

This had the unintended side effect of turning average consumers into UI/UX critics. Like Yelp, app marketplaces allow users to leave ratings and reviews, and once users gained access to millions of apps, they learned to be choosy (just like today’s lay restaurant critics).

If you peruse app reviews, you’ll see criticisms about the inability to change an app’s color scheme, the pervasiveness of advertisements and in-app purchase offers, software bugs, and the presence or absence of certain features.

In 2010, when apps were taking off in a big way, the most popular apps were generally games, Facebook, media platforms like Netflix and Pandora, and communication platforms such as Skype. As it became clear that apps were not a fad but an evolutionary step on the tech ladder, major software companies started making apps to complement their products, including business software.

Then the mobile social media big bang happened, and a whole new field of marketing and e-commerce was born, permanently blurring the lines between personal-use and business-use apps.

4. Influence of social media

The rise of social media resulted in more consumer exposure to personal and business products, as well as more crossover and competition between B2B and B2C technology. Examples of this are Facebook’s foray into business products, monetized Instagram accounts and advertising on the platform itself, and the development of G Suite (later Google Workspace) from a formerly consumer-focused product (Gmail).

Now, rather than business solutions and consumer products being developed separately with vastly different aims, consumer products are influencing business UI/UX, and vice versa.

Many of the software dev experts we spoke with said they thought social media design had a direct influence on business software and business app design. Some examples they gave us as evidence of this trend in work software are “at” mentioning (@EmployeeName) in work systems, upvoting and downvoting in work systems, emojis in work chat systems, GIFs in work chat systems, and live notifications in SaaS products.


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