Sometimes it is all Greek to me – does it have to be so?
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.