Changing perception of usability at SAP
I was fortunate to get to SAP TechEd in Madrid this year. It was the first time I had been to one of the big SAP events in Europe for more than a decade and was a great reminder about some things that are particularly European.
For example, a lot of people wear suits. Sure because TechEd and Sapphire are combined events in Europe you expect the larger “business” audience to outgun the “techies” – but there are still a lot of people wearing suits. Also, a lot of people smoke – noticeably more than in Australia or North America.
Percentage of Males Smoking by Country – Source Wikimedia Commons
One of the big messages for me from the TechEd season was the renewed focus SAP has on the user experience. This, of course, is not the first time SAP have attacked this issue.
While working for Oracle in the early 1990’s they came up with a plan to counter the SAP graphical user interface. The Oracle technology, Oracle Forms, was designed to work on terminals – typically the DEC VT series or similar. While Oracle Forms was very capable the visual experience between a VT220 terminal and the WIMPS interactions of SAPGUI on MS Windows was stark. So Oracle came up with a solution. They used a windows terminal emulator that included scripting capabilities and supported windows style rendering to take the fixed-font character experience of the terminal and transform it into what appeared to be a windows application. They called this solution “Client/Server Lite” to position it against SAP’s 3-Tier Client Server architecture. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Oracle were acknowledging that SAPGUI was the benchmark for user interfaces in the enterprise.
Times have changed and there is no doubt that the dynpro programming model and the SAPGUI screens that it produces are pretty boring by contemporary user interface standards. Over the past 15 years or so we have had EnjoySAP, SAP@Web, SAP ITS, SAP Mobile Engine, BSP, CRM UI, Web Dynpro, SAPUI5 and probably several others that all in some part seek to provide better experiences for SAP users. Yet SAPGUI is still the mainstay of SAP user interface technology.
Recently Sam Yen took up the role of SAP’s Global Head of Design and User Experience. Sam has a very big job – and it would be fair to say a job, or at least some tasks, that other people have failed at before. I was fortunate to spend some time with Sam in Madrid and get his thoughts on his new job, what he hopes to achieve and how he will try to do it.
One of Sam’s primary goals is to change the perception of the usability of SAP. To me this is an important difference from previous UI renewal attempts that tended to only focus on new UI technologies. The simple facts are that SAP delivers to its customers about 16000 transactions – comprising as many as 30000 dynpro screens – as part of their applications suite which are used by the vast majority of SAP users. And these dynpro screens are not going away anytime soon – none of the new UI technologies SAP has released has ever made any significant impact on these numbers.
Adoption of new technologies in the SAP customer base is painfully slow. Some of the reasons for this include:-
- Enterprise software is critical to the day-to-day running of most businesses across the globe – customers are very reluctant to change anything that might effect their enterprise applications because of the very real possibility of significant business impact if things go wrong. That is why the Vishal Sikka “Innovation Without Disruption” mantra is so important.
- SAP applications are linked to a specific NetWeaver release and new technology is delivered in the latest NetWeaver release making it unavailable until an applications upgrade is done – no trivial project.
- SAP have done very little to take existing dynpro transactions and port them to newer technologies. If SAP’s commitment to WebDynpro ABAP was measured in the number of traditional Dynpro screens migrated to WDA the results would be quite damning.
So the uptake of new SAP UI technology has been very slow – in fact almost non-existent. Take the example of a customer just now upgrading from ERP 4.7 to ECC 6. They have not yet done anything on WebDynpro ABAP because their current technical platform doesn’t really support it, and if they were to honestly look around now at the most appropriate UI technology to use for new user experiences they would be quite justified in choosing something else because WDA certainly does not deliver the consumer-grade user experiences that are expected in 2012 and beyond.
Sam intends to tackle the negative perception of SAP usability on two fronts.
Firstly, he is identifying the top transactions that pretty much every SAP customer uses. He sees this as being about 20-30 transactions in areas such as Purchasing, Financials, etc. He foresees that SAP will redesign and redeliver these transactions making full use of contemporary technologies and techniques to provide a much more engaging and effective user experience. My assumption here is that we are talking about replacement transactions built using SAPUI5, NetWeaver Gateway, etc. but it could well be something else altogether.
Secondly, Sam believes that each individual SAP customer has a further subset of transactions that are critical to their business. Again this might be around 20-30 transactions. For these transactions Sam sees a role for SAP Screen Personas. He believes customers will be able to use Screen Personas to “re-skin” standard dypro screens to provide better experiences for their users.
This all makes perfect sense – but for me I still don’t yet see how the slow adoption problem can be solved. Sam is in a hurry – he wants real movement on this issue in months not years so he needs to solve all the problems inhibiting adoption that already exist plus a few new ones like…
- If SAP build 20-30 completely new transactions using contemporary technology isn’t that just the same as new UI technology solutions that have failed to be adopted before?
- If SAP view Screen Personas as the answer to the 20-30 customer-specific key transactions why don’t they see it as the answer for the 20-30 universal key transactions? If it is good enough for their customers why isn’t it good enough for SAP themselves?
- Even something as non-disruptive as Screen Personas requires a certain kernel level. This presents the same application/technology change management issues I mentioned above.
I wish Sam and his team all the best in the coming months as they work to change the perception of usability with SAP customers. I hope they are phenomenally successful and prove doubters like me wrong. In fact I hope in my small way to be part of their solution as much as I possibly can. But they have a huge task and will need to execute perfectly to achieve it.