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As an interactive company, we are engaged in many digital projects that touch people in some way.  iPhone apps.  Websites.  Enterprise software.  Social Media apps.  These digital projects span different kinds of clients in different industries.  The type of project varies, the business requirements change, and we always need to put on our thinking caps to come up with a great user experience that hits the mark for our clients.  Clients are different.  Businesses are different.  And UI needs are different.  With all these differences though, there is one underlying truth that is always the same – out of the box UIs, at best, only partially hit the mark.

 

The reason is simple – we see it every day.  Clients are placing increasing value in their digital offerings.  I can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard “Can you move this button?” or “Can you plug this screen into our other product?” or “Our customers need a seamless experience across all these apps.”  Clients always want to modify a packaged product to some degree.  It’s becoming more prevalent with each passing day – clients not only expect easy, simple, and fast for their users, but also expect a seamless UI across different software solutions, often from different software vendors.  This means combining SAP and non-SAP apps together to produce ONE seamless solution.

 

With this in mind, we wanted to comment on the UI design approach with SAP BusinessByDesign.  In this article SAP is trying to make the UI better for some of its on-demand products.  And we think this is a noble attempt.  Everybody knows the oil and vinegar mix that somewhat describes SAP software and usability, so any attempt at remedying this is a step in the right direction.  But, in the end, the out of the box UIs will never be the end-all-be-all. Customers will always want to change it. 

 

So, it’s really like putting a band-aid on a broken leg, or treating the symptom not the cause.  Its not about trying to hit the mark with out of the box UIs so much as it is allowing the UI to be as flexible as possible, expect modification, and make that process as inviting and easy as possible.  This is the new reality for user interfaces.  Facilitate customization, don’t resist it.

 

Here’s an example.  One client we’re working with wanted to produce a seamless user experience for its external customers that allowed them to create orders, process returns, create invoices, run reports, and administer users.  To the users, this was ONE process, or at least it was supposed to be.  But to the client, this was much more complex – many apps run by different software vendors (SAP, Microsoft, Ariba,IBM), all needing to be combined for their customers to offer end-to-end process-based solutions.  The old solution cobbled together many different user experiences from the disparate software solutions, to the point where help desk calls started getting so bad, that they needed to hire 10 new customer support advocates to handle the issues.  Customers often threatened to “jump ship” to a competitor whose UIs were “much easier to use”.  Similar processes like pagination, placement of form controls, UI patterns and actions – these were all different across each app, and worse, they were different across each SAP app.  But the customer needed to negotiate each UI to place an order, process a return, create an invoice, and run a report.  The number one help desk complaint – “Why is it that this all can’t work the same and look the same way – this is way too complicated.”

 

The point is – it’s impossible for any out of the box product to satisfy all UI needs with a blanket approach.  Enterprises today often own many different kinds of software that they expose to their users, internal or external.  Different software with different UI layouts, design patterns, processes, aesthetics, and usability.  Each individual app may do a fairly good job of standing up a decent UI, but there will always be situations where that app needs to-be modified for some reason, and needs to be blended with other apps.   So, in our experience, it isn’t as much about producing UIs out of the box that try to meet all user experience needs, but rather create a UI that is extremely flexible, and lends itself toward change – because change is the norm in the digital UI world.  Since customers always want more, out of the box solutions will almost certainly fall short. 

 

We would like to think of SAP software as clay – the soft maleable kind, not the hard, dry kind.  Soft clay would be UIs that anticipate and facilitate customization.  Hard clay would be out of the box UIs, and the blanket expectation that it will work for all users.  Some will say – “well you can still use a chisel to make the hard clay be what you want it to be.”  This is true, but you lose pieces.  Not to mention, you’ll have difficulty correcting mistakes.  We don’t want to lose pieces of SAP because of out of the box constraints. 

 

From a design perspective, out of the box UIs should have the ability to heal, to be soft clay.  Make customization and modification simple and inviting.  Expect it.  Embrace it.  Foster it.  In the end everyone wins, users will get what they need, and SAP will look very good in the process.

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4 Comments

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  1. Sergio Ferrari
    Thanks Pete for this interesting blog.
    I agree with your vision and I was in the same position during past projects.

    The point here is about how much are we just dreaming?

    DO you have any “soft clay” example to be taken as a sort of goal for SAP UI ?

    Do you see Ariba, IBM, Microsoft really so ahead ?

    In any case, WDA+FPM (Web Dynpro for ABAP plus Floor Plan Manager) is the strategy and support a lot of customization/personalization even if I can image you’re “dreaming” much more.

    Sergio

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  2. Stephen Johannes
    Your problem here is that you assumed that it should be feasible to take many systems developed by several different parties and hope they will all end up looking the same for the UI side.  In other words taking applications designed for “back-office” users and expecting an external facing user to use the same interface.

    If you truly have a “custom process” that sits on top of several “out of the box” systems, then you need a “Custom UI”.  Then I could be wrong, we should really expect SAP and the other vendors to deliver identical products.

    Take care,

    Stephen

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  3. Vikram Chalana
    Peter,

    I totally agree with you. Whether it is SAP, Oracle, IBM, Salesforce — out-of-the-box UI for any business process may only cut it for the very simplest of tasks.

    The problem really is that it is the same UI for all kinds of users in all industries and all company sizes. In some SAP transactions, it appears that the developers did not meet a field that they did not like! Add to that that users have to use not just SAP, but other systems too — and you have a potential usability crisis at hand.

    The solution is to have an easy-to-customize layer on top of your existing UI which allows non-programmers sitting down with users to rapidly define the UI for a given process. And this new UI should be on top of any UI platform of your choice — Office, PDF, Sharepoint, Mobile, etc. At Winshuttle, we call this a “Usability Platform”.

    Vikram

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  4. Kristian Kalsing
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Pete.

    I couldn’t agree more. There will always be a need for custom UIs. The reasoning is simple:

    Businesses compete in an open market
    -> Staying competitive means continuous innovation
    -> Innovation alters business processes
    -> Changing business processes require changing UIs

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