SAP, UIs and what is enterprise software for anyway?

James Governor  has a  post about T-mobile using Adobe Flex as a front-end to SAP HCM (Training and events management)

The application in question is an employee-facing application, used for scheduling staff training sessions, including ongoing mail reminders and automated customised PDF documents for participants. It accesses SAP back end systems with a rich user interface. If you want to download the application it is open source and available on Flexcoders.

I found a gem in the comments

James –
I think things like this are only good for SAP and here’s why. SAP sucks at UI, they always have and they probably always will; the shift you are starting to see is that SAP has finally decided as a corporation that they can’t compete in the UI space, specifically on the web. From a business perspective they need to be focusing on the stability and diversity of their business applications, namely what they are best at. My CIO has said it a million times before, he can’t remember the last time someone said one of our R/3 systems was down. However, I can never remember him saying that people truly enjoy using them :-). SAP needs to allow customers to create new paths to their own data — you are starting to see this with the widget and scripting communities. Personally, though I am not sure the SAP customer base is ready to make these type of decisions for themselves. Customers have always bought a total solution from SAP, from database to UI so, it is interesting to see companies that are unafraid of those choices. As for the agile stuff, I am stewing on a new blog, I’ll be sure to trackback here.

Dan has a newish blog, I’ll be watching it with interest.   He is presenting something about SAP and Ruby at the SAP analyst’s conference. (Think it is this week) Look forward to reading about that.  I understand there will be some other announcements there too.

Dan nails SAP’s strengths and weaknesses in one paragraph.

But I’m not sure that he is right about SAP realising that it can’t compete on the UI. What we have realised though, is that we need to encourage customer and partner based UI innovation, not constrain it.  There is no “one” SAP GUI anymore, he is spot on about the multiple paths, and his concern about whether the customer base is ready for this is valid too.

 If you are interested in SAP UI strategy, I suggest you head over to SDN and read this blog post  from Filip and download the white paper. I’ve written a bit about my take on SAP UI strategy here.  Guiding customers to the right UI will become more important.  Choice creates freedom, but it also creates confusion.  Customers need more guidance here, that’s clear.  

I read Kathy Sierra  regularly.  She is the queen of user experience, and a must read.  I’d like to see her visit Walldorf and talk to our user design folks.  We have much to learn.

Workshipping at the user temple

(beware enterprisey rant)

I do worry though, as Bill Thompson does, about the dictatorship  of the UI.  (tip Vinnie)

Web 2.0 marks the dictatorship of the presentation layer, a triumph of appearance over architecture that any good computer scientist should immediately dismiss as unsustainable.

I can’t comment on the merits or demerits of AJAX,  I’ll leave that to the Rednun

I have a problem  with end-user idolatry.  It is just as bad as ignoring the user.  Sig, what do you reckon?  

 Read this manifestos from over at  gapingvoid 

1. Over 50% of any piece of software is communication with its end-user. To build good software a developing team should spend at least 50% of their time thinking about what and how they want to communicate. Preferably even more.

2. We want to create good software. And we want to collaborate with others to help them make end-user experience a central focus in all of their development efforts.

3. Shaping interaction is a privilege and we consider it an art.

4. With privilege comes responsibility. Our prime responsibility as software developers is to make sure people have a good time using our software.

It sounds lovely, doesn’t it.  It may work if you are developing computer games, but I think it misses the point of why companies need business applications.  If it was all about user happiness, it would be better  to hire a bus and give the users  a day at the seaside.

Maybe I’m being enterprisey here, but surely your responsiblility is to make sure the business runs better and faster? Sure, happy users is part of the story, but  I don’t think that the end-user should be the centre of the business application design.  The business objectives  should be the centre.

Things like  lower delivery costs,  more flexible shipments, faster to market, less defects,  satisfied customers, better forecasting,  market share growth-That is what enterprise software is about.

If your design principles are purely centered on existing user happiness, then you will continue to build a better horse and carriage, but I don’t believe you will move things beyond where you are today. 

The user of the system is not always the customer.  To put it bluntly, a financial system  should not be  designed to make accounts payable clerks happy.  It should make the  real customers happy, the CFO and the owners and investors in the business. They should have the confidence that the numbers in the system reflect the business reality. It should designed to track, control, record and predict the financial status of the business.  Most of the data that flows into a finance system does so without user intervention.  The end-user is not the centre of attention, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them.

Building better processes often means changing the current status quo, and making the current user community uncomfortable.  I’ve lost count of the number of payroll folks I’ve met who want the system to look exactly like the old one. 

 I’ve mentioned before that process automation Nirvana is to have no human involvement at all. 

There are many places though, where a great user experience is key for process success. There is much to learn from the web 2.0 design  innovations, we need apply them  in the enterprise context.  Here at SAP we need to get better at the end-user experience, but not at the expense of our focus on a better business process.

I’d suggest you have a look at Dale’s post

So, counter intuitive though it seems, using business objectives and outcomes as the pivot point for your thinking can lead equally to the adoption of canned processes from the likes of SAP, and the embracing of relatively unconstrained Web 2.0 and social computing ideas.

He is working on book with Jon Collins, Neil Macehiter and Neil Ward-Dutton,  called The Technology Garden  they are hoping to improve the business value that their IT systems and people deliver. I look forward to reading it. It is all about building bridges between the sandals and the suits.  Goodness indeed. I’d like to see what their SaaS definition is !-)


16 thoughts on “SAP, UIs and what is enterprise software for anyway?”

  1. Thomas, me like. Enterprise end-user vs user, good point that:

    Their “use” is different in an enterprisey way – end-user needs a tool to go about his tasks, user would want a tool to build better tools for the end-user and above all, create better value for the business with that.

    Quite different objectives indeed.

    Simple, nice, non-fuzzy – sure, Ajax and neat colour schemes and no advertising thank you (no joke, all too commong inclusion of internal reminders, plugs, news and whatnot amounts to internal advertising I would say) – that’s common and a design issue by itself.

    Then comes the user, the enterprisey creator of better processes – let’s make it easier for him/her to be creative.

    Guess you know my stance here 😉 – be radical and attack the underlying complexity before even thinking about UIs. Design the build process (what the user shall do) around only the basic requirements and leave the rest up to the creator of business processes. How can you be creative if all is laid out already?

    Start with strategy say (more basic and more important you cannot ask for)… even if it’s for a small five man team in the corner, they have one too. But all too often the build process gets clogged up from start by too many detailed “requirements” and “pre defined this-is-how-we-do-it”s delivered by white papers, month long system design papers, templates and whatnot colour they have. Nah, a simple lead-in and just-do-it with prompt and instant feed-back (Did it work?) I would argue for…

    But we’ll see, tinkering myself with said issues, not an easy task, fun though…

  2. User-centered design should be guided by the business’ goals. Period. That’s why the user is there in the first place, they have things to do that the enterprise needs done. UCD is a discipline I need on my team in the same way I need expertise in architecture, security, data structure, messaging, etc. When properly executed UCD allows the company to achieve business goals easily and efficiently. It gets short notice by because of the notion that it’s all about happy users and is full of Woodstock and sandals. But this is Enterprise we’re discussing, right? If my usability expert saves one minute daily for 150,000 employees by making their workday more efficient and reduces call volumes by 30-40%, it’s an accounting exercise, not a group hug.

    T O S

  3. But to be perfectly blunt – if the UI sucks then is the user as effective as they might be? Of course thing need to get done, but it sure as heck helps if the user is getting some pleasure out of it instead of having to fight it.

    Why else did I become a Mac fanboy after 25 years of IBM/M$/Intel? It wasn’t to save money on the hardware, that’s a racing certainty. It’s the UI. It’s the dog’s nuts.

  4. Hi Thomas,
    I can’t agree more with the take on end-user idolatry… spot on. On the other hand two years of AJAX and some reasonable consumer UIs does not make a UI dictatorship. It is not a bad thing to shine the spotlight on making great user experiences for awhile- lord knows we have all seen enough refrigirator diagrams at this point. Software should be useful, usable and desirable for all stakeholders… IT, Businesses, end-users… Ultimately the best UI is no UI at all, because technology is doing the heavy lifting while making people smarter by providing information at the right time and at the right place so business decisions can be made.

  5. It seems that James finally got around to blogging about something he saw. He talked a bit about it during one of the RedMonk Radio episodes but did not even scrat …

  6. Interesting thoughts on decoupling UI from platform and applications. BUT this would imply SAP customers are experts in creating an efficient user experience. So while it is a direction to take, it puts a lot of faith into SAP customer hands to use a holistic approach to their users experience. It’s hard enough for implementation teams to gather solid requirements and now we expect them to practise design thinking? A whole new consulting skillset needs to be built up and then yes – this will be a good approach. Until then I fear we need to leave the user experience for the most part in the software providers’ hands and hope they get it right.

  7. AA,
    I think it is both.
    SAP needs to deliver a great, compelling user experience out of the box, but needs to make it easy for customers to change that anyway they’d like, and as often as they like. I hope for a world of the fluid ui…

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