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It is all in the UI

I for one continue to be frustrated by the revised ‘ribbon’ experience in Microsoft Office that came about with Office 2007. Every now and then I want to do something in Word or Excel and I have to waste precious time fluffing around in the ribbon icons trying to work out what they do or determine where the developers hid that rarely used function. Praise be for F1 and it’s index!

For users who still remember Lotus 1-2-3, the ability to navigate and perform functions was all done pre-pointing device days, you had to use key strokes. Part of the quick and easy adoption of Excel and other spreadsheet applications in the early days was the compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3 keystroke commands.

Not being a very heavy Microsoft Excel user, I need to be basically familiar with only its basic functioning and over the years I have used and abused the product for a great many different business activities from doing graphing to running small databases and doing pivots. One thing I always liked about the product was the fact that when I moved from Lotus 1-2-3 to Quattro Pro and then Excel, the transition was relatively painless. With time I became comfortable with the additional keystrokes in Excel that were faster ways for me to do things. The Alt F S for file save, the Alt F N for a new spreadsheet etc. These activities were generic for all Windows applications when we eventually got there, whether they were Microsoft made or not. Provided they ran in Windows natively the navigation methods were pretty ubiquitous.  

I recall Quattro Pro extended Boeing-Calc’s tabbed workbook to wider appeal and then it became a facet of Excel to close the competitive gap; I hated tabbed workbooks, more often than not because I couldn’t get my head around the concept – people would give me a workbook and say the data is in there, I’d look but I couldn’t find it, oh it is on the second sheet. Grrrr! These days it is a fundamental part of many advanced workbook applications so I just accept it. One becomes familiar with these new ways to work and the pain is numbed or goes away with time. Though I have been using Office 2007 for a few years now, it is still irksome when I try to work out how to do something that seemed to be so familiar or which I seem to have remembered from the older versions.


The same becomes true with the new Netweaver Business Client 3.0.  The look and primarily the feel is quite different to the SAP GUI and of course the concept of the shell and canvases makes for a much richer user experience, I can get quite swamped with canvases if I am not careful!  Even the help comes as a pdf and not the traditional help file. To my mind, this all speaks to the attempt to successfully converge the business user experience to one consolidated UI experience that can handle legacy ABAP dynpro and web dynpro and anything else that might be thrown into the mix via an internet browser. In a nutshell, some sort of UI simplification.

For some users who have only ever known the SAP GUI or portal views, the NWBC will provide a painless transition and a refreshing new experience and for some users of course, the experience will be less so. There is of course also that category of user who will never move out of the GUI at all or for whom choices seem to be more limited, they may escape unscathed by this new development. For now at least.


All of this got me thinking about the fundamental problems associated with UI as it is today as a whole, the fact that in the quest for more functionally appropriate solutions of all shapes and forms, developers have engineered so much complexity into sometimes even  the most mundane of tasks that it is rapidly becoming unusable by new or inexperienced users – when you get to users with accessibility challenges, the problem can be  even worse. Consider websites that only function with mouse clicks and mouse hovers and you immediately understand what I mean. Hover roll down and click. Not very accessibility friendly.

You could disingenuously argue that in business, users shouldn’t be allowed to use things that they haven’t been properly trained on, namely the SAP UI. But at the same time you should consider that training carries a cost with it, and in these times of budget pressure and the desire to do more with less, employees are expected to basically be able to function effectively the moment they are given a computer and work to do.

The flashing time date function  

When you purchase a new gadget or gizmo like a GPS, normally you take two paths, you either switch it on and see how intuitive it is to use the moment it powers up, or you study the manual and determine what you need to do to maximize your  ROI from the thing you just bought. Most technologists don’t read the manual, in fact I would argue that most people don’t read the manual either. We pretty much assume that for commercial and in particular domestic products, if the UI experience is dreadful then the product is likely to fail, no matter how rich the capability. If the product is too hard to configure, deploy, use, we relegate it to the flashing time-date annals of user experience. Many of us might recall that the flashing digital dusplay was common on video cassette recorders in the 1980’s and 90’s. If digital clocks and microwave ovens were this difficult to set we would still be working with analog or those funky split flap displays like they used to have on clock radios and in the airport.

My guess is that this is also one of the reasons that the corner electronics store is not today, what it used to be. There was a time when you could buy every conceivable component you needed to build something like a ‘wireless’. Yes, today you can still order those items online and there are probably some very successful online retailers of components for DIY enthusiasts or folks wanting to test their crystal sets skills. Some of those retailers may even run SAP;  but you get to a point in your life where you don’t want to have to be armed with a soldering iron, a baggie of IC’s, a box of twiddling knobs, switches and led’s and a roll of wire. Oh, and playing with toxic chemicals to make little circuit boards – all just so you can have FM Radio.  Instead you go down to the mall and pick one of those self contained mini FM radios in the dollar store; made of such small components that you need a magnifying glass to see what the component names are. The desire for experimentation and dinking with technology in this way seems pretty much over, you have other things that are more interesting to do or which enrich your life more, do you really want to be rehashing work that has been done before? I see the NWBC as functioning in that space. 

that 9600bps Green Screen is Smoking! 

My legacy of data processing experience was a team of personnel who had the the ability to rapidly key through hundreds of fields and in fact perform faster on the keyboard than the screen painter on the terminal could paint. Once they had finished their data processing batch, they would sit back and sip a slug of coffee or bite into a cookie and wait whilst the green screened god ticked and beeped through the queue of keystrokes they had furiously built up. They can’t do that anymore, their forty pound keyboard and 100lb green screen has been recycled and now all they have is a whirring shiny CPU with an enormous glowering LCD and all these shiny applications like Microsoft Office, the NWBC and the SAP GUI. They have a flimsy 101 keyboard that barely copes with cookie crumbs let alone hours of pounding keystrokes, and this thing called a mouse that looks more like a futuristic kids toy car but has no underside wheels and does not float and really isnt a mouse at all.

Business controllers and data processors like the ability to visually browse their processing data and quickly arrive at an understanding of where there may be issues with their data before they physically post into the SAP System of record. Microsoft Excel remains a popular means for that data staging today for exactly this reason. They can perform whatifs, can build prevalidation into their workbooks or use the copy and paste functions for repeatable data or use formulae or advanced functions to compute values. The problem with this staging approach is that it is inefficient when it comes to data entry and there are technical limitations with the UI and how that translates to all the information that the business users might feel that they need and which they have in their workbook but can’t see or access in the SAP transaction. They have to get it from Excel to SAP and they have to do it accurately and quickly.

Subsequent generations of UI development try to deal with the limitations by re-jigging the way data is presented or adding fields that previously never existed or were obscured and in some instances a fully automated approach is implemented simply to cope with the frequency and volumes of data that need to be shoveled into the system for processing. Often the way the data is received is not the way it needs to be transformed for data processing. SAP application nhancement, customization, business user UI development initiatives are not for everyone though, nor are they as widespread or as pervasive as technologists might hope or desire. These initiatices are often expensive and they introduce more complexity into the landscape than the business and IT feel that they would like to have to deal with. The return on investment becomes increasingly more difficult to justify and calculate and the yield, lower than expected.

Helping Mom and Pop

Consider a grocery chain that I have been talking with lately; they have many suppliers on EDI whcih was expensive for them to implement. They also have many suppliers who are not on EDI. As a result, they have many deliveries, invoices etc that they receive as paper documents or, if they are really lucky, as Excel workbooks. Since they don’t have a guided procedure for these mom ‘n pop suppliers and these small suppliers are key to their supply chain activities, they have to somehow find a way to get all that data into their SAP system in a rapid, structured way. 

The first step of course is trying to get all these suppliers onto a standardized format of data. Easy enough, jig up an excel workbook and send it to them and ask them to supply the information using that format. The problem has now been pushed upstream, which spreads the cost to entities external to your organization, but you still have the challenge of getting this data into your system. Your next step might be to create a loader program. This could be something developed in ABAP or Java or you could go the relatively lazy route of doing a BDC recording and executing that as a program or a LSMW job. If you have little or no variation in the inputs and the quality of the data is integer and character perfect then it could be plain sailing for the business users. More often than not, it isn’t that straightforward. Some suppliers aren’t able to get you the information in the format you want and in particular, in a timely fashion without having to do a lot of manual massaging or their own system changes.

Your relationship may be as one of those very suppliers and your inability to provide the data in format X may jeopardize your ongoing business relationship. So what are your non programming choices? 

Microsoft Excel to SAP Integration

Microsoft Excel to SAP integration tools can help in this space, allowing variable field and column mapping in Microsoft Excel workbooks to field and screen structures directly in any SAP GUI dynpro transaction. Processes that previously involved the cumbersome ‘busy work’ activity of painstakingly transcribing from EXCEL into the SAP GUI or into a portal transaction screen can be quickly and seamlessly automated by transferring the data to SAP in much the same way as a BDC recording works but instead of requiring business users to have access to audit sensitive transactions like SHDB, LSMW and SM35 they can manage the mass create and change transactions  while respecting SAP security authorization objects and system access restrictions.

All this is achieved with a zero point SAP landscape and configuration change footprint, applications are installed entirely on the client side and the only additional requirements are Microsoft Excel, the SAP GUI Client and a valid SAP user ID. Not necessarily an ‘easy button’, but certainly faster and more aligned with the way business users need to effectively work. Without widespread implementation of stronger supplier-customer collaboration rules and the development of highly adaptable and flexible customizations and enhancements to your SAP environment it is very difficult to achieve a fast ROI on ‘lights on’ initiatives if they have a long development lifecycle, involve unwelcome change to your SAP environment and involve expensive development resources.

Returning to my opening comments, the Microsoft Excel ribbon is likely here to stay, at least for a few more generations of the product and I will simply have to get accustomed to it. While the NWBC brings the promise of a more harmonized platform for all SAP system interactions, what one colleague calls the ‘SAP UI mashup’, the SAP GUI remains the pervasive element for most back office activities and we owe the business user community the opportunity to maximize their effectiveness when working in this environment. Consider desktop integration tools the next time you consider adapting an existing SAP transaction, developing a web object or embark upon a BDC record or eCATT script for mass change, mass load or to avoid the complexities of the existing SAP transaction UI or simplify the user experience. They will be so glad you did.

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