Designing Simple Yet Significant Software for Digital Natives

“Make it simple, but significant.”—Don Draper, “Mad Men”

A two-legged chair might look great, but it’s a pretty lousy chair. Marrying great form with great function is the essence of good design vs. bad design. Whereas art or music can be subjective, design is only as good as it is usable.

If we use the perspective of technology, we could ask: If your software does amazing things but is too difficult to use, was it worth making? Simplicity is a major factor in good design, and the question of simplicity is an ever-more critical element as Millennials—or Digital Natives—enter the workforce and bring with them notions of how software should look, feel, and work. Creating great software that adheres to design simplicity principles helps engage this younger workforce, and in turn, how this generation views and interacts with technology is increasingly defined by the simplicity and elegance of design.

In today’s digital age, the notion of “simple” is increasingly hard to attain. Yet, many technology vendors speak of their commitment to their users and to their overall experience while they continue to layer new complexities (bolt-on acquisitions with divergent experiences, an endless number of mobile apps to download, more and more functionality without redesign) into their products. The fact is, as software becomes more complex, it erodes its ability to be effective. Great software must evolve continuously, and be redesigned constantly to meet users’ changing demands and expectations.

Digital Natives demand that things are intuitive and easy-to-use. Venmo, Instagram, Uber . . . these apps don’t come with user manuals, they just work.

Empathy Leads to Insight

At Workday, our design thinking methodology is inspired by a learn-by-doing mentality and an understanding of what makes people engage with technology. A major part of the software design process is understanding and having empathy for users. Consider the case of Millennials who grew up with a mobile phone practically attached to them. They don’t think about software and hardware; they just see digital access as a ubiquitous, all-encompassing source for information, education, entertainment, and social interaction—these are the Digital Natives. Consumer technology has become easier to use during their lifetimes, and in response, they rely on it to conduct every aspect of their lives. They have expectations about what it means to use technology, and if technology doesn’t meet their standards, they simply will not use it.

Digital Natives demand that things are intuitive and easy-to-use. Venmo, Instagram, Uber . . . these apps don’t come with user manuals, they just work. Engagement takes center stage in great software, and this is greatly due to how the products are designed. As this group matures into the workforce, we see that it is necessary, and in fact respectful, to design products in a similar way; make it easy to understand, to use, and to enjoy.

Access Equates with Design

To deliver functionality to all users and audiences, we use this design thinking approach because it is a proven and repeatable problem-solving process that has helped users achieve extraordinary operational and economic results. There are four key elements to our design thinking approach: defining the problem, create many options, refine-refine-refine, and execute on the winner. This methodology complements the Millennial generation’s need to have instant access to data and provide a consistent and concrete answer to “why?”

The desktop is becoming ancillary, and our strategy of delivering truly native mobile experiences targets this younger generation.

Kate Meyer, a consultant with user experience research firm Nielsen Norman Group, authored a study, “Millennials as Digital Natives: Myths and Realities,” that supports our thinking. She wrote, “Many Millennials were in grade school or college when Google first rose to popularity, and it was a critical influence in setting the level of simplicity and directness that Millennials have come to expect from interfaces. They don’t care if (for example) your enterprise application has significantly more complex features to consider. When interfaces fail to live up to those unrealistic standards of simplicity, Millennials rarely blame themselves—unlike older users. Millennials are quick to criticize the interface, its organization, or its designers.”

Mobile is the Way Forward

The desktop is becoming ancillary, and our strategy of delivering all employees, managers, and executives with truly native mobile experiences targets this younger generation. At Workday, we believe that a mobile-first strategy is foundational to delivering a meaningful user experience. From Workday Recruiting, which was designed to meet the hiring needs of managers directly on their mobile devices, to Workday Learning which brings the mobile binge-watching phenomenon (popularized by YouTube, Khan Academy, TED, and others) to learning content , we are focused on providing a continually new and modern platform for our users. It’s also one that maps to the way they expect to use technology.

At the same time, as Recode explains, the mobile app market is slowing as fewer people download popular apps. Whether this is a result of saturation or the “been there, done that” effect, Digital Natives are coming to recognize that time and attention are limited resources. They prefer their apps to be an extension of anything that makes them productive, and they want to have their work be as easy to access and use as it is to get a Lyft.

Ease-of-use is becoming the factor in how software is evaluated. We live in a world where people are constantly connected, and companies recognize that people are more likely to engage, produce, and get value from their software investments when they can their software works the way they expect it to. By understanding how that environment works and what gives people a comfort level with certain technologies, we can replicate that in how we develop great products at Workday. With great design, we can make software that helps people get engaged and be productive.