How to Design the CRM User Experience

How long did it take you to learn eBay or Amazon.com? How many manuals did you read? How did that experience compare with learning your CRM application?

Consumer technologies have set the standards users expect in their personal and professional application usage. However, when trying to leverage these technologies with business applications most organizations get it wrong because they fail to understand the difference between the user interface (UI) and the user experience (UX).

A CRM user interface is like a joke, in that if you have to explain it, it doesn't work.

The UI is focused on simplicity and the visual presentation, but the User Experience is much more than that, as it contributes to an emotion that either enhances or degrades the continued use of the application.

To achieve a positive emotional connection, the UX should precede the UI so that form follows function and utility is aligned with user-centered design. What that means is that the UX begins by engaging users to understand what they want to achieve and how they want to achieve it. Any attempt to achieve a UX objective by hiring designers, creating wire frames or dressing up existing applications with UI facelifts – without first understanding user behaviors, expectations and prioritized use cases – will probably not achieve a successful user experience.

Understanding the CRM UX ROI

Before you belittle the power of emotional attachment toward a CRM software application, consider the tangible benefits and their financial payback. CRM applications that deliver a positive UX also achieve the following benefits:

  • A positive CRM experience lowers learning curves and fast tracks staff on-boarding. These benefits are often cited as a result of improved ease of use and can accelerate time to value by 40 percent (source: CRM Benchmark Report).
  • Improved user satisfaction leads to greater application utilization – including better data input, more process automation and enhanced information reporting. This in turn achieves higher technology investment payback. On the flipside, when users fail to see the value of their CRM software, they revert to the bare minimum operation, maintain separate shadow systems (often Excel spreadsheets) and incur more manual effort. Most companies struggle with CRM software utilization, which is why most companies use less than 25% of their CRM applications capability.
  • More enthusiastic CRM adoption reduces training costs, rids the need to create custom user manuals or help pages, takes advantage of CRM updates, lowers support and help desk costs, and reduces documentation expenses.

How To Achieve the CRM User Experience Payback

Once you understand the upside, the next question is how to achieve it.

As with any business strategy the first task is to define the goal. For most adopters, the strategic objective for user experience is to deliver the right experience to the right user at the right time on the right device. This objective should be quantified into more practical terms by role.

The next step is to define the plan. While project plans will vary, the first task is to know your user. Before you can design for the user, you need to really know your user. Start by identifying and segmenting your audience and then identifying their roles, content needs, devices, use cases and CRM software expectations.

The plan will vary greatly based on whether working within the platform, constructs and tools of a particular CRM application or developing bespoke customization which permits more powerful and flexible platforms, tools and technologies. For an illustrative example that stays within the constructs of packaged CRM software, refer to my post on how to customize the Dynamics CRM user experience.

The CRM UX Formula

With the prerequisites in place, you can begin the user experience design. I've found a relatively simple formula that can deliver a predictable CRM user experience.

Relevance + Personalization + Context + Outcomes = UX

I'll explain these building blocks.

  • Relevance is all about delivering what users consider important. Technology should be designed and configured to deliver relevant information by role and based on use cases.
  • Personalization adapts the CRM software based on configurations, preference settings, role, past use, channel, device and location. Personalization goes beyond the way the application looks and includes how the application responds, what content is displayed or promoted, how content is consumed and how the use case outcome was achieved within the user's personal preferences. CRM software applications permit simple user management, user segmentation and role-based configurations which contribute to personalization. However, to maximize this capability you’ll need to apply several tactics I'll share later in the user experience best practices section.
  • Context advances content from static views to dynamic information based on what's needed at any point in time and based on variables which match a situation. Within a CRM application context brings what's needed to the forefront faster and with fewer keystrokes. By understanding users past behaviors and actions (or what we sometimes call situational data and outcomes) you can anticipate situations, predict the best case responses and configure CRM software to proactively react.
  • Outcomes are the results that cement the users experience. The three factors that most impact the user's perception of CRM outcomes are predictability, convenience and timeliness. Use cases must be designed for these three variables.

Here's a shortlist of the highest impact user experience best practices and tactics to improve the CRM software user experience.

  • Navigation. Intuitive navigation is a big contributor to the UX, and the 3 top factors which achieve impressive navigation include defining the right starting point, showing suggestions for the next destination (or next best action), and displaying path and location information.

    Good navigation starts with the right home page. An ideal starting point for CRM software is a dashboard configured by role and displaying top performance measures, prioritized activities and suggested actions. A well designed dashboard facilitates user priorities and time management, and answers the question: What do I do first? And then what do I do next? Applying user experience design to align behaviors with company goals is a lot like good compensation management plans that align behaviors with company priorities.

    Most CRM systems enable users to choose their default landing page and access that home location from any other page in the application. When leaving the home page, users should see a breadcrumb trial or similar navigational aid which shows them where they are and how to back out if desired.

    A few navigation user experience best practices include putting key links (aka editorial links) above the fold, making the breadcrumb trail linkable, using paging instead of excessive scrolling, shunning horizontal scrolling, avoiding modeless pop-up pages and always enabling the Back button so users can return to their prior location.

  • Page design. Content may be king but utility aligned with design rules UX success. Good design makes content more valuable and consumable. Three CRM design best practices include theme consistency, context and content positioning.

    Theme consistency should be maintained across CRM applications (i.e. sales, marketing and service) and ancillary systems (i.e. partner portals, partner relationship management, field service management, mobile apps). Consistent use of page structure, design, colors, brand and images can be aided with CRM templates for CRM pages, documents (proposals), reports and correspondence (emails and letters). Other tactical design elements include generous white space (aka negative space), low page text density, sans serif fonts, web-friendly colors, image links, two dimensional images, judicious use of background images and anti-aliasing (aka dithering) of bitmap images, jagged images, diagonal lines and curves. Lastly, avoid jargon and cluttered pages. Research shows that users find what they're looking for 55% faster in an uncluttered display as compared to a dense display.

    Another design technique to improve readability and usability is facilitated scanning. CRM account, activity, opportunity and case pages can accumulate a lot of content. By designing pages with clear titles, headings, sub-headings, short captions, highlighted phrases and pre-sorted columns users are better able to scan and find what they are looking for fast.

    Context reduces the number of visible choices to those which are most relevant or applies variables at a CRM location in order to position specific content. For example, when navigating from an account to a map, be sure to pass the account address parameters to the destination map. Or put up-sell and cross-sell links or options directly on the opportunity page or service case page. And because recording activities is the most popular transaction type in CRM systems, make creating activities available from the users' home page. By identifying use cases by role, you can add or reposition CRM menus, links and buttons to locations where they are more pertinent.

  • Search. Google has taught the world that search is a preferred navigation technique for many users. But unlike Google, most CRM system search results display countless pages of unorganized or irrelevant content. Delivering a Search function that works will improve the user experience. Here are some tips to improve your CRM search engine.
    • I’ve found that the search algorithms for most CRM software search engines ― including Salesforce.com, Microsoft Dynamics CRM and SAP CRM ― prioritize page titles, headings, account names and opportunity names. Salesforce.com also prioritizes custom tags. Giving these data types smart titles and relevant naming conventions improves search results.
    • When searching help, the search is only as good as the CRM software help content, which generally isn't very good. Fortunately, you can modify or create your own help content. A quick approach is to append the CRM vendor’s help pages with titles, tags and terms relevant to your business in order to improve search engine results. It's also a good idea to include keyword misspellings, misused plurals, extra spaces and other variations or common errors in search phrases. A best practice is to review search engine logs to see what keywords, terms, phrases and subjects users are searching for and then update the help content to correlate to these search phrases.
    • You may also want to consider excluding certain CRM site and help pages from search results in order to narrow content and better filter results for users. Each CRM search engine is slightly different but you can insert a meta tag (i.e. <META NAME="ROBOTS" CONTENT="NOINDEX") on select pages to exclude them from search engine indexing and results displays.
  • Analytics. Achieving user experience goals is a continuous journey and analytics provide the fuel for that journey. Analysis tools to measure and improve the CRM user experience include the following:
    • Closed loop cycle analysis – CRM administrators can streamline business processes by examining historical user actions in end to end sequences, identifying where planned processes break down, and re-configuring navigational sequencing or process workflows. The path a user takes reveals what they are interested in.
    • Content conversions – measure information consumption in order to elevate frequently used content and discard unused content.
    • Feature utilization – measure CRM application utilization by role/user/function over time in order to identify irrelevant features, or possibly under-utilized functions that can be expanded with targeted education or communications.
    • Testing tools – simple tools such as heat maps and first/next click testing recorders deliver a quick view of what users click and what they avoid.
    • A/B testing – control/challenger testing is useful for testing variations to user home pages, dashboard components, queries, views, lists and reports in order to continuously improve the CRM user experience.
    • Voice of the Customer (VOC) – you can't guess what users want, you have to ask them. Simple surveys or discussions at user group meetings allow users to tell you what they like and don't like in their CRM software system.
    • In the past I've created UX dashboards to display key performance measures such as Daily Active Users; Average Time on Site (by role, function, page); Average Data Input (new entries) and Average Data Output (queries, views, reports, dashboards). I also use these dashboards to display the most and least used content assets.
  • Technology. Whether using Salesforce's Lightning, Microsoft Power Platform any other CRM software platform, it's critical to understand these environments, leverage their capabilities and stay within the CRM software’s tools and constructs to the maximum extent. This practice will reduce maintenance, improve stability, maintain scalability and ease the steady flow of seasonal updates and new versions.