Transforming Legacy Systems is the Need of the Hour

Bansi Mehta | 13 min read

Let’s begin by understanding the basics. What is a legacy system? A legacy system can be a software application, a computer system, or a process or technology that is about to turn obsolete or already has. In fact, many misunderstand a legacy system to be an old, outdated one. While that is true in most cases, age is not the only parameter to define a legacy system. It could refer to a system’s inability to meet organizational needs or discontinued vendor support. As an instance, a manufacturing unit’s software running on MS-DOS can be termed as a legacy.
Among the many disadvantages of legacy systems, they don’t usually receive tech support which makes them complicated to maintain. They’re incompatible with newer technologies which seriously limits the scope of enhancing their functionality.

Without a doubt, legacy applications form the backbone supporting the workflow within organizations for years or even decades. However, this is what holds the business back from moving on with the times in terms of adopting newer technologies and benefitting its users. Yet, for varying reasons, businesses continue to make do with them. Not surprisingly then, they are all over the place, be it legacy systems in healthcare, telecommunication, government services, banks, transportation, and more.

Is a legacy system an enterprise application?

legacy system an enterprise application

Techipedia defines an enterprise application to be a large software system platform designed to operate in a corporate environment such as business or government. These systems are complex, scalable, component-based, distributed, and mission-critical. This software consists of a group of programs with shared business applications and organizational modeling utilities designed for unparalleled functionalities.

But every enterprise application cannot be termed as a legacy system. Enterprise software that is reliant on aging or obsolete programming languages results in escalating maintenance costs. Older APIs and services may no longer be supported as well. After a point, even knowledgeable developers can find it increasingly difficult to maintain these applications.

Over time it’s natural for businesses to evolve as well. The proliferation of mobiles and cloud-based applications has massively transformed the way people work, thus creating novel workflows as a consequence. Not surprisingly, legacy apps are a misfit in this environment made up of constantly evolving technologies and user behavior.

Among the many examples of legacy systems, here’s one scenario – sales agents involved in fieldwork today naturally expect to be using their mobile phones to view and manage their work. However, with their legacy application not having a mobile version, they would be forced to carry their laptops everywhere to access it. Now, it may cause further inefficiency when the said app isn’t web-based which means that they can’t update inputs in real-time and have to make notes to be updated later.

Over the years, legacy systems have been questioned on their rigid infrastructure requirements, complex licensing rules, immobility, inadequate support systems, and above all, the mammoth costs required to maintain them.

Enterprise users look at seamless cloud integration as a given basic. They are fascinated with the consumer-like interface designs which B2B applications strive to offer. This has simply increased the pressure on legacy technology systems to migrate or drop out of the race. They simply aren’t equipped to fight against the efficiency and scalability that is offered by the cloud.

Having understood those grounds, application migration to the cloud is undoubtedly one of the most neck-breaking transitions in a product’s life cycle that relies on multiple aspects of strategy and execution for its success.

Some of the factors that hold enterprises back from the leap

1. Lack of funds

Lack of funds

Application migration of a legacy system requires significant investment. It is important to realize that though the entire cost of migration may seem steep, one must not overlook the expenses incurred in maintaining and sustaining the legacy.

2. Resistance to change

Resistance to change

Migration can seem overwhelming and a complete shift could seem scary to a few. Most of us like to live with the continuity and make small enhancements. Well, migration too could be done incrementally to be more sustainable.

3. Fear of the unknown

Fear of the unknown

Predictability contributes to trust. A successful application migration to cloud is backed by a robust strategy that makes the process more quantitative. A skilled UX team can provide a path that has smaller goals to validate and build a sense of trust along the way.

Why does an IT system become a legacy system?

Legacy technology systems often form the bedrock of workflow operations in companies, for example, a legacy EHR system that has been in use within a hospital for decades. In many cases, it so happens that companies choose to incrementally enhance these systems over a period of several years. This renders the application to become exceedingly complex and nearly impossible to replicate or replace. As a result, it turns out that these companies become prisoners of their legacy systems over time.

Risks of sticking with legacy systems

1. Their incompatibility with the latest browsers, versions of operating systems, languages, and new cloud- or web-based technologies make legacy systems unstable, hard to use, and prone to slowdowns or worse, crashes.

2. Over time, they tend to be built based on different programming languages and managed by different technicians, possibly resulting in incomplete documentation regarding updates.

3. This intermittent documentation and lack of technical support over time make the system susceptible to security breaches.

4. It hardly makes sense to expect legacy systems to run forever and expect them to steadfastly support business goals. As the years pass, these systems bleed the company by their high rate of failure and lack of security and support, thus reducing efficiency and productivity.

How to Deal With Legacy Systems

It’s a given that updating legacy systems is an immediate requirement. How should the stakeholders go about it is a whole different question altogether.

At the preliminary level, enterprises can have three basic options –

1. Replacing the existing system

2. Continue to enhance the existing one

3. Source an external product

Replacing the Existing System

Replacing the Existing System

Replacing mission-critical legacy systems in business can lead to a major shake-up in the way the businesses function and the way the users go about performing their daily routine tasks. Here are a few scenarios in which a replacement would seem justifiable –

1. When the existing technology is causing the company’s bottom line to nosedive because it’s simply not equipped to serve the contemporary needs of the business.

2. It is costlier to maintain than replace.

3. It is so obsolete that it is hard to find trained staff for its upkeep.

With all these conditions in place, it makes sense to replace the existing system with a newer, contemporary solution. That said, businesses that decide to opt for a replacement have to make appropriate provisions for project management, technical resources, communications and change management, executive sponsorship, and committed funding.

Replacing a legacy system is never an easy decision to make, given that it usually is a behemoth that has controlled the company’s operations over the years or even over decades. Doing so involves careful risk analysis and a well-chalked-out plan for transition and adoption.

However, several compelling reasons may push companies to go for a radical change, especially when the existing system ceases being a benefit and becomes an expensive burden to carry.

Continue Enhancing the Existing System

Continue Enhancing the Existing System

A lesser-radical solution to combat this problem would be to try reengineering legacy systems and keep the pain of a full-blown replacement at bay at least temporarily. A common strategy is to offload its maintenance to a specialized design and development agency. Outsourcing the system’s upkeep makes sense as these agencies harbor the expertise to upgrade near-obsolete software and make it more accessible to web, cloud, or mobile technologies.

A point to note is that enhancing a legacy system can only go as far as adding a few more years to its functioning. Depending upon the intricacies and complexities, the company needs to formulate a detailed plan to either keep extending the enhancements or going for a replacement.

Source an External Product

Source an External Product

Software as a Service (SaaS) is an option often considered by companies looking to replace their legacy system and yet limit their development and maintenance budget. In case they manage to find an off-the-shelf product that matches about 85% of their existing functionality, it makes sense to seriously consider it. This does not mean that buying a SaaS product makes for a seamless transition; CIOs, in fact, would be tasked with addressing the new system’s functional gaps, data migration and security, and integration with other applications as needed.

When would a SaaS solution be a no-no? For massive-scale multinational companies with thousands of users, especially if the provider levies per-user charges or isn’t flexible enough to accommodate their needs. Companies operating in mission-critical systems like healthcare or aviation, for instance, would always hesitate to opt for these solutions. Therefore, before choosing a product it is essential to assess its scalability, functionality, and flexibility to integrate with existing systems.

Enter Enterprise UX

Enterprise UX

Enterprise UX is an all-inclusive term referring to the designing of software used internally by a business – software that’s used by employees, not consumers.

The way we look at enterprise UX is: creating seamless software handled by thousands of users globally across sectors as a part of their jobs.

What does this translate to? Empowering healthcare professionals to make accurate diagnoses using well-designed EMRs. Helping expand the outreach of government-provided health insurance. Or even letting factory clerks ensure that their goods are warehoused optimally, and many more.

Enterprise software is highly specialized and complex. These are massive products that experts use for several hours every day to get critical work done.

Enterprise UX involves creating software that facilitates an organization’s primary goals. Think of it like this – an automobile manufacturer may design the best-performing vehicles, but it would impact production if their QA is bogged down by legacy software.

UX design is the enabler for enterprises, helping them perform the way they were founded to do.

Enterprise technology does not have to be difficult. People don’t deserve to feel irritated while they’re performing everyday tasks like writing quotations or devising delivery schedules. It only does more damage than good. We believe that workplace software needs to get the work done as easily and seamlessly as booking a cab or ordering food.

Employees are human – the very ones using Evernote to list their groceries, Mint to create a budget for them, and Pinterest to plan a recipe based on them. However, it’s a whole different story when these very people come to work and make do with applications that complicate basic things like importing a Word doc or using a calculator.

The sheer scale of enterprise software amplifies good and bad design alike. Minor inefficiencies in large-scale software products lead to increased costs that manifest via user frustration and wasted time.

Poor design leads to added costs in training employees, excessive documentation explaining interactions, and a perpetual need to seek technical assistance from the vendor. Terrible user experience creates issues that are incremental and cumulative. To put it lightly, flawed UX bleeds the company’s finances over time.

Enterprise User Experience as a Competitive Advantage

“Investment in UX is often the difference between businesses that grow and those that sputter.” – Roman Nurik, designer and design advocate, Google

One look at the statistics, and it’s apparent that investing in UX design scores financial wins for companies across sizes and industries. A 2016 design study conducted on 408 participating companies discovered that increased focus and investments in design resulted in multifold advantages – including increased sales, higher customer retention and engagement, and faster movement through product cycles.

All this was merely the result of placing the user and UX design at the core of their business development plans.

The best user experience hits the sweet spot between user needs and business goals. By helping users accomplish their jobs with ease and finesse, they end up serving the needs and goals of the business in the best possible manner.

Let’s say that a UX design sprint has helped optimize a task. What once took 5 minutes to complete is now done in 2.5 minutes, which results in an increase in productivity by 100%. As basic as this may seem, it’s still true that design-driven companies outperformed the S&P average by 228% over the last ten years.

1. Lowered Support Costs

Lowered Support Costs

A well-designed application works smoothly without the intermittent need of tech support. It also helps negate the need to spend on training and documentation, reducing the stress on the employees and the bottom line.

A well-designed product experience means that the users need little to no help in going about their tasks. It’s hardly fair to presume that every tech tool needs a dedicated service team working full time in this day and age.

2. Increased Efficiency and Productivity

Good UX boosts productivity

Good UX boosts productivity – which can be measured in terms of hours and costs saved to complete day-to-day tasks. It helps minimize the time that’s otherwise utilized in reworking features and performing redundant work. Employees end up saving time, and can, therefore, engage in productive activities like business generation and other important projects.

“Design Unicorns” is a term used to describe companies with the highest level of investment in design. These design unicorns recorded an increase in sales by a considerable 75%, as compared to those that were less invested in UX (but were still “design-centric”) who had an increase of 60%.

3. Reduces Development Time

Good UX Reduces Development Time

An estimated 50% of technical do-overs are all about fixing avoidable mistakes – like erroneous assumptions of user behavior leading to confusing navigation.

The input of a UX designer reduces the number of times developers have to re-work a product by up to 50% and reduces development time overall by between 33% and 50% by improving decision-making and helping to prioritize development tasks.

“The value of UX is not wasting time and money developing the wrong solution.” – Jeff Humble, lead UX designer, CareerFoundry

4. Employee Retention

Good UX means Employee Retention

When employees are given beautiful and intuitive tools to work with, it naturally makes them better, more committed performers. In this world with exorbitant talent acquisition costs, it is a win-win to retain valuable employees for long.

With millennials being the largest age demographic of employees in the United States, it goes without saying that this is a group that expects technological finesse in all walks of their everyday life. And yet, 71% of these working for enterprises report being unhappy with the collaboration tools available to them. Decision-makers and managers are now compelled to improve the UX of their internal systems or risk alienating the very group that would be building their company’s future. The result? Loss of talent, increased expenses caused by employee turnover, and an overall competitive disadvantage.

It is unfair to propagate the concept of complex SaaS products. Instead, all efforts should be invested in making workplace tools that are easy to use and efficient in function. Availing the services of an experienced team of UX professionals ensures quality user experiences that translate to business success. By avoiding technical and UX debts, the product performs optimally and frees users of the strain. Having a dedicated UX team in place enables the right decision-making, which ultimately boils down to savings in terms of time and money in the best interests of the business.

About Author:

With an experience of over a decade in User Experience, Bansi Mehta is the Founder & CEO of Koru UX Design. Collectively, her team provides exceptional UX for enterprise applications and complex systems, working with clients ranging from healthcare giants to boutique investment banks.

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