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Business Software Faces Pressure to Update Its User Experience – The Wall Street Journal

Business software is starting to change its look and feature set, but it often still lags the consumer experience.

Photo: Dominic Lipinski/Zuma Press

When Citigroup Inc. last year sent almost $900 million to lenders in error, it not only set off a legal fight over the money but unwittingly highlighted a separate issue in the back office: the frequently clunky experience of using business software.

The mistaken payment at Citi occurred as workers tried to send a nearly $8 million interest payment using a financial software product called Flexcube, which is offered by a subsidiary of Oracle Corp. Citi has blamed the mistake on human error. An Oracle spokeswoman said financial institutions use Flexcube to safely make trillions of dollars in transactions every day.

In the ensuing litigation as Citi tried to recoup the money, the bank shared images from its software. The screenshots showed a user interface with dense type, low contrast and small buttons and boxes.

It is the kind of design that would make executives at consumer-facing companies cringe, including banks offering brightly lit and easy-to-use apps to their checking, savings and credit-card customers, designers and analysts said. But it hardly stands out in a business environment, they said. While people look for best-in-class user experiences as consumers, they are often forced to check those kinds of expectations at the office door.

That is partly because the people who choose business software for their companies rarely consider user experience, said Sam Horodezky, founder of Strathearn Design, a user-experience consulting firm. “They will frequently pick the product with the most features or the lowest cost, without factoring in the end user at all,” he said.

It can also be costly to change or update business software, and might require retraining employees, Mr. Horodezky added.

The Flexcube screenshot reflects an older, customized version of its business software, the Oracle spokeswoman said. “The screenshots shown in court do not reflect the current user interface of Oracle’s corporate-lending systems,” she said.

An image of the software that workers were using when they sent lenders more money than they intended. Citi has blamed the mistake on human error.

Photo: U.S. District Court – Southern District of New York

There are also key differences between personal payments and corporate lending, the Oracle spokeswoman said.

“These lending systems are built for trained users who have to consider multiple complex scenarios and fields, and is not just a money transfer from one person to another,” she said.

No two commercial loans are structured the same way, as they might be in consumer lending, said Paul Spiteri, chief executive of the Lending Practice, a commercial lending consulting firm. “It is hard to encapsulate technology and processes around something that doesn’t look the same twice,” he said.

The good news for workers squinting at dimly lit designs is that the consumer sector is putting pressure on businesses to provide better digital experiences for both clients and employees, according to software executives.

“They’re having an influx of users who are demanding easier, simpler, more modern experiences,” said Todd Olson, chief executive of Pendo.io Inc., a product-engagement software company that offers services such as user onboarding and training.

However, while changing relatively obvious elements in the user interface can help, that doesn’t always address deeper problems, he said. Companies might need to analyze how long users are spending on certain forms or where they pause, for example, to understand which changes to make.

Companies are beginning to invest in making products easier to use, but their efforts are still relatively nascent, said Andrew Hogan, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., a research firm.

“They’re paying interest on the design debt,” Mr. Hogan said of companies that don’t make ease of use a priority. “This is an area that’s going to see huge investment over the next few years.”

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital practices in business software, said Lidiane Jones, executive vice president and general manager of Salesforce Commerce Cloud, part of business software provider Salesforce. com Inc. Technologies such as personalization and artificial intelligence, commonly used in consumer products, are starting to become capabilities that business-software users want, she said.

After the overpayment snafu last August, Citi said it is in the process of upgrading its loan-operations platform. “We have put significant, additional controls in place until the new system is operational,” it said then.

Write to Ann-Marie Alcántara at ann-marie.alcantara@wsj.com

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Appeared in the March 18, 2021, print edition as ‘Citi Error Puts Focus on Software.’