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I recently visited two regions of Europe which do not have English as  the primary mode of spoken communication.  Additionally, one of those  countries doesn’t even use the Latin alphabet (aka the Roman alphabet).  Decoding Czech into English is one thing, at least I can read it, sort  of, but decoding Greek is quite something else. When I went to an  Internet Café in Greece the terminal had me completely confused. I am  possibly easy to confuse but was especially so when the SKYPE  application launched all in Greek. The basic UI is no different from the  English one in some respects. What is disconcerting is that the meaning  of some of the buttons is not easily discernible due to the lack of  icons. The noise that a foreign language or character set generates  visually for my brain, distracts from my ability to be effective when  using a tool that I think  I am pretty familiar with. Let’s be frank, a  web browser is hardly a complex application to use and Skype isn’t much  harder. Inexplicably I couldn’t tell how to switch to English and every  time I typed in the URL Google.com it would automatically go to  Google.cz or Google.gr depending on where I was. Obscured down in the  bottom right hand corner of the web page is apparently a way to switch  to English but I certainly couldn’t see that at the time for all the  visual noise that the foreign languages created.  Some multi-lingual  websites show little flags for the different languages and of course in  the SAP application at launch time you get to choose the language you  would like to communicate with the system in. There’s a lesson there in  iconizing and UI design somewhere I suppose.

Eventually I managed  to navigate the Greek menus and enable English  (this will likely  frustrate a subsequent Greek user at the cafe) and I carried on with my  Internet Café adventure, as to Google, I can’t recall how I resolved  that but I think I eventually worked out how to make the .com site the  default and everything was resolved for me at least.  Despite this being  a seemingly trivial set of events I was struck by how uncomfortable I  was in not being able to understand my environment easily and of course  this speaks a great deal to the experience that a new user completely  new to the SAP UI must feel when being dropped into the use of the  application.

The whole idea of usability continues to be a very  front and center issue for those using SAP systems and in fact any ERP  solution or business application for that matter. Solutions like the  standard Adobe Interactive forms and even the business user centric  views rendered by the SAP Portal and products like SAP CRM 7 make  current best efforts to try and address some of these usability issues.  In fact the very presence of the many SAP Ecohub partners who operate in  this space attests to the burgeoning demand for usability optimization  in the market. The more customers who sign up for SAP systems to run  their businesses, the greater the demand will be for optimizations to  bring businesses efficient use of their SAP systems, this should go  without saying, but there is enough complaint out there in the market  place that there are many responding  in a multitude of ways.

At  Sapphire earlier this year I was interested to see the reactions of  new-to-SAP business people who were in the throes of SAP implementations  when they witnessed some of the navigation challenges associated with  the legacy SAP UI – their awe revolved primarily around usability  challenges pinned to lack of intuitive design and was dovetailed with  their lack of understanding of some of those tips and tricks that I  alluded to earlier. Progressively, here at Winshuttle, we see more and  more emphasis on usability of our own continuously evolving products  which works exclusively with the SAP application landscape and of course  this goes beyond the issue of handling cumbersome technology  based  business processes and their optimization it speaks to fundamental ease  of use of applications software using things like wizards, templates and  automated procedures.  Rapidly delivering  business process  optimization by re-engineering application usability helps some but  there are not many ways to do this as rapidly as business would like,   without compromising on the effectiveness of the existing processes  supported by the technology. Over-arching business process optimization  that encompasses usability, collaboration, activity optimization and  workflow takes time to implement and while it is the right direction for  any business that considers itself progressive and desires agility in a  changing business environment sometimes usability improvements alone  are enough to bring massive benefits in operational efficiency.

So  how is this to be done in an effective way without a terribly long  implementation lifecycle? The short answer in my experience is that  there aren’t many ways that this can be effectively done with enterprise  solutions if the necessary optimization capabilities weren’t built into  the system at the outset.  Taking a look at the SAP UI environment, the  provision of BDC sessions, tools like LSMW and even the recent release  of the Netweaver Business Client 3.0 are all progressions in this  direction. Putting a new wrapper around ABAP screens for example is  interesting on one level but it still doesn’t change the fundamentals of  the fields and the layouts and their use and usability so it is likely  that this will appease only some of the usability platform complaints. I  was surprised for example that NWBC 3 didn’t make a bigger splash when  it was released but I guess the landscape prerequisites to get it  functioning properly mean that it will be a while before it becomes a  significant UI experience enhancing tool for existing customers.  The  promise is that it allows you to view not just ABAP dynpros but also  Java all in the same application.

I am also thinking that mass  change tools like MM17 in its current form were likely not available  with the earliest releases of SAP. Yet, with the passage of time the  demand for mass change utilities by customers has been frog marched to  its current form by necessity but it is likely that there were many  iterations and improvements and with time there may be more but then  again perhaps not. Despite the level of advancement in this and other  transactions,  even today; if you have custom fields or terribly large  quantities of data to change, this code  simply won’t do the requisite  job; furthermore your auditors or the very business managers who own the  process that this supports may have anxiety about providing this  ‘dangerous’ transaction to business users, so even if you wanted it, you  couldn’t have it. In terms of usability you’re once again blocked.

While  I have often focused on mass change in the past, interestingly, it  isn’t even just about mass change that concerns arise when talking about  usability in the main. Expense reports and time sheet entry for  example, directly through the SAP UI were always a pain for me at least  and I know it was a sore point for colleagues and for other SAP  customers, they’re hardly mass change or create activities unless you  are a timesheet or compensation administrator but performing these  actions was  painful for me  not because Ididn’t want to do them (as  others might say), but simply because the larger the amount of data   that I needed to enter or the further the backlog of entries,  the more  unappealing the idea was of having to deal with the quirky yet  supposedly flexible CATSXT  interface.  Conversely, when I worked with  web based time sheet entry in other environments, procedurally at least  it seemed so much easier and this was likely driven by the fact that the  web form was already a controlled flow specifically for my role and  responsibilities and seemed to  not rely on my data input attempt  to  tell me I was entering bad data, it worked it out for me up front. As an  end user I didn’t care about the complex underlying routines all I  cared about was usability.  It is a simple yet common business activity,  timesheet maintenance and expense reporting,  yet it can be incredibly  cumbersome to manage and execute and may be considered by many as almost  unusable for new or inexperienced users in some instances. I hear you  say that this could all be about configuration settings but I have my  doubts about that too, I hear too many customers complain about it for  it to be simply attributable to configuration.

Undeniably there  is a big demand for simplification out there and products like Smart  Forms, DUET, web interfaces,  PDF files and even Microsoft Excel are  becoming some of the de facto ways to achieve the simplification, a DUET  timesheet for example would be nice. But is it reasonable to expect  that every function in SAP today can be rendered either as a DUET or  portal transaction or even as an interactive form? I don’t think this is  likely given the costs and amount of effort required to do this. If you  take a look at most of these initiatives, they are far from all  encompassing. DUET  1.0 for example came with a diminutive nine  scenarios and Adobe Interactive forms come with a similarly limited  number of initial scenarios. You can of course develop your own but all  that comes with a cost and the main cost is time, this is not the kind  of agility that business demands.

Additionally, the above  approaches still don’t really solve the other demand, that for mass  change and often mass change has the same needs in terms of  simplification, you’d need a different technology stack for that.  Windows desktop applications to SAP interfacing technologies are not  going to go away any time soon, so there is likely to continue to be a  sustained and even rising demand in this space as transaction volumes  increase. If you’re not using them and have a need for this kind of  integration, sure, you can take on the development effort of building  some discrete ABAP applications that load data but this is an approach  that may deliver throughput but doesn’t scale in terms of flexibility;  consider that you’ll be doing this in parallel to preparing ABP code to  support your DUET intiatives or ADOBE interactive forms. If your IT  administration environment is conscientious about change management and  governance and risk compliance then the delivery cycle is likely to be  protracted further due to these pressures.

So, watch this space  carefully over the coming months, at Sapphire 2010, Winshuttle presented  an array of new technology opportunities for improving the usability of  standard SAP as well as enhanced SAP environments and these promises  are being readied for delivery in the coming weeks. SAP Customers are  getting a further boost through the almost instantaneous delivery of  standard SAP transactions as web services through SAP complementary  technologies from Winshuttle leveraging existing SAP technologies  without the time consuming development lifecycles commonly experienced  and without the need for any programming or developer involvement.   Delivery is fast, flexible and simple and supports using any forms  designer tool that can consume a WSDL as well as supporting the  continued and almost unavoidable use of Microsoft Excel without  compromising your SAP security authorizations or organizational data  security and authentication models.  Certainly you’ll likely find the  promises deliver a considerably easier experience opportunity than  trying to work out how to toggle the language selection from Greek to  English in even some common consumer applications.    

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