ARTICLE: Chris Albert

5 tips for integrating third-party applications without sacrificing the user experience

Over the past few years, the UX of EdTech products has improved by leaps and bounds. That’s true at the individual application level, anyway. But it’s a whole different story when you look at the user experience of product integrations that bridge two or more applications.

It’s hard enough to integrate platforms in situations where you have complete control, but it can be incredibly difficult to integrate third-party platforms in a meaningful, seamless fashion. The reality, though, is that the continued success of your product depends on your ability to do just that.

Product leaders typically choose to integrate third-party applications to extend or expand their product’s existing feature set in an economically efficient way. And it often makes good sense to do that rather than reinventing complex systems. But anytime you opt to integrate an external application, you risk introducing frustrating new UX problems that degrade your product’s overall quality of experience. In fact, few things can add to your design debt load more quickly than a poorly integrated third-party application. The last thing you want is for your users to notice the integration — or abandon your product due to a fragmented experience.

Here’s what you need to know to take a UX-forward approach to third-party integrations.

1. Leverage Your UX Teams Platform Integration Experience. 

It probably goes without saying that a UX-forward approach to third-party integrations must include your UX team’s input.

Plan to consult your UX team when you are in the initial stages of considering third-party platforms. They should be able to give you a read on the UX challenges that may surround an integration with the specific applications you’re exploring.

After you’ve made the decision to move forward with an external application, you’ll want to keep your UX team looped into the integration process. At this point, they should test the integration to ensure it meets your intended needs without unnecessarily taxing your users. User testing is a necessary part of the process.

2. Focus on Meaningful Integrations, Not Just Technical Ones.

Technological challenges often drive the decision to integrate with third-party applications. After all, tying into an existing technological solution can save your engineering team a lot of time and money.

Remember, though, that an integration only makes sense if it provides users with a seamless, low-friction experience, one that ideally reduces their cognitive load by doing some of the work for them. In order to be successful, you must assess external applications with this in mind.

No matter how technologically handy an application may be, it isn’t worth pursuing unless it adds value for the people who use your product.

3. Know Your Existing Workflows — and Identify How the Integration Will Improve Them.

Your product and the third-party platform you’re seeking to integrate may work beautifully on their own, but it’s up to your team to figure out how to bring them into functional alignment.

To start, you need to have a strong understanding of your product’s existing workflows and identify exactly how the integration will extend them. That means understanding the sequence in which tasks are performed, how users move between related tasks, and when it’s critical to maintain context across tasks. For example, how do your users create and enter data in the current workflow, and how do they validate and correct errors?

Look to uncover why your users do the things they do, such as the reasons why they typically open two applications side-by-side. Is their workflow ideal, or is it a compensation for a pain point? Understanding this helps ensure that the proposed integration will be solving the right problems, and helps you set a baseline for comparison after your integration is completed.

4. Match Your Data Models to Users’ Mental Models.

When it comes to managing third-party integrations, UX research is needed to bring disparate data sources together and achieve seamless experiences for specific user workflows.

If your product and the third-party application have different data models (for example, using different names or structures for the same types of information), you’ll need to map out a plan to bring the two disparate models into alignment.

Beyond that, you’ll need to understand how your users expect integrated platforms to share data. For some integrations, users might expect to manually push data across integrated platforms. This is especially true when it comes to more sensitive data, like credit card information, social security numbers, and the like. Users may feel that their privacy has been violated when sensitive data is pushed automatically from one program to another. In other instances, however, your users may prefer for the system to share data automatically. When that’s the case, users quickly become frustrated if they have to enter duplicate data.

Keep in mind, too, that some data-sharing models may introduce data-integrity issues (for example, when two sets of data don’t match due to errors in redundant inputs). Back-end solutions to align these two sources on the fly can affect performance — and frustrate users in the process.

Bottom line: if you aren’t aware of and responsive to your users’ mental models, data-sharing across platforms can become a source of significant user friction.

5. Choose Wisely — Not All Platforms are Created Equal.

Not all platforms are created equal when it comes to how well they handle integrations. Some platforms are built from the ground up with integration in mind. But many others add integration capabilities over time as a value-add. In those cases, user experience and the seamlessness of a platform’s integration capabilities may not have been top of mind.

If the application you’re considering isn’t purpose-built for customization, flexibility, and transparency in integrating with other platforms, the user experience loss it creates may more than offset the value you’d gain by adding the platform in the first place. Your development team, in particular, should assess third-party platforms for ease of integration before moving forward, and coordinate with the UX team to ensure a sufficiently seamless integration can be achieved. If you don’t take this necessary precaution, your development team may spend far more time compensating for limitations than you’d like.

Extending your product’s features with third-party applications can be a great way to grow your product at lower cost. By following these tips, you can be sure your integration will enhance rather than undermine your product’s UX.

  • Photo of Chris Albert
    Chris Albert

    As a Design Director at Openfield, Chris is a deep thinker with a savant-like ability to untangle and simplify complex systems. Now in his 8th year with Openfield, the wisdom of his 20+ year career in design and his tireless devotion to his work and clients inspires everyone at Openfield. Out of the office, you’ll find him doing the same thing he does at work – ever advancing one of his many crafts and interests. He’s a letterpressing photographing traveling gaming car guy. Chris is our Renaissance man.

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