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Author's profile photo Clinton Jones

Why considering ERP usability is not the comparison of two bottles of sauce

A lot has been said on this topic both in response to the question of whether maintenance current SAP customers should be paying extra for the right to use Fiori apps and whether Fiori offers new functionality, a new experience or is in fact “table stakes” as Sam Yen – SAP’s global head of Design and User Experience put it to Fredric Paul in a NetworkWorld article.

This view in my opinion is very narrow band, even consumer grand software is not necessarily broadly appropriate as a starting point to talk about usability.

In reality Fiori for example is only the narrowest of solution sets for the narrowest of problems – mobile use. The release has effectively created a great deal of confusion among SAP customers that I have spoken to, this seems to be a recurring problem, with every innovation that comes out – really understanding what the positioning is for that solution.

Things are becoming clearer but the question is really at what price in terms of customer understanding?

Two ketchup bottles

Frank Brinks a SAP User Experience (UX) and Mobile Specialist for CPG-, Retail- and Financial Industries at SAP in the Netherlands described Fiori as a new experience for customers of SAP but what his rather clever image of two ketchup bottles failed to articulate was that this relates really exclusively to the mobile experience which is not necessarily as pervasive globally as things suggest. You can give everyone a mobile app but have you put the infrastructure in place to service mobile requests and application support outside of the closed network? Great idea, but possibly a tough one to implement especially in markets where accessibility just to the internet is challenging or incredibly expensive.

Computerworld in Germany just recently produced an article that described the plans of SAP and its customers as being in-congruent and this not only applies to the mobile play but may also apply to the HANA play too.  The impetus for the article came from a DSAG survey of 413 member respondents in Q4 of 2013.

Pretending to be a fast clock

The article went on to describe SAP as being akin to pretending to be very fast clock with respect to innovation whereas the majority of the technology portfolio lags. More importantly the article suggests that the legacy of SAP installations hampers customers ability to focus on new offerings because they are too busy living with the reality of what they have.

I think the criticism is a little unfair of SAP. Unfair because ultimately what customers deploy is wholly at their own discretion.

The level of integration that they invest in is contingent on their palate for risk, the implementation time frames, the internal technical and functional competency of the organization and that of the system integrator or integration partner. Sure, there is new functionality that has been developed and enabled over the years (or acquired) in response to market demands but these are not capabilities that everyone wants or needs and for many, if the pain is not great enough, the value is not perceived in making further investment or change especially if they did something custom to address a gap.

I see this frequently. Customers who have even recently deployed SAP but cling to their legacy systems as sub-ledgers because they have distinctive or unique  functionality that the customer has not, cannot or chooses not to implement in their shiny new SAP ERP system.

I also see this with customers whose own business processes and operational functions are transforming or in a constant state of flux.

Different solutions for different approaches

To my mind what many of the critics and proponents of various pieces of the puzzle fail to grasp or are unwilling to acknowledge is that the technology landscape is vast and diverse and the business requirements equally broad ranging.


If I had to describe the landscape in an image that continues the analog that Frank Brinks started with, everyone wants ketchup or tomato sauce (ok i know some want mayonnaise but let’s leave that aside for a moment) and the reason that they want that ketchup is for largely the same reasons.

However where things go a little awry is that the way that those people want to consume or access that ketchup is different.

Some want the convenience and portability of single servings, somewhat akin to ESS and MSS, some want ease of use with a durable container that is easily manageable, like the inverted squeeze bottle (Fiori), some want something durable, tried and tested, economical, recycleable and robust like the glass bottle – this is perhaps the SAP GUI.

Continuing this analog, some want to ‘roll their own’ – they actually want to hide the whole legacy user experience and put everything in a pretty container (think SharePoint and Duet) and some want to hide the back end completely behind a different front end that they believe is easier to maintain and use (think about front end shopping carts hooked up to SAP back ends – there are several out there!).

Then there are those who have a very utilitarian view about how they want to work with their back end system – they are the ones who want to use tools like MS Excel and MS Access to mainline into SAP for transactional data  and master data processing – there are several products out there that do this, among them of course Winshuttle.

Even customers  with Fiori and HANA will consider the need for something to mainline into SAP processes, sure they will evaluate EDI, PI/XI, Biztalk, WebSphere and Tibco as means to feed the SAP system.

But many of these are very technical approaches to addressing usability challenges that may be transient in nature, are relevant to only a narrow subset of the user community (perhaps the back office)  or which don’t justify a massive capital investment to address a niggling piece of capability that is missing from the core product set. Consider them as being a little like an intubated food drip. Difficult to setup with ease and relatively inflexible per scenario.

No one likes their baby to be called ugly

Consultants will whip their Z programs out of their back pocket for spreadsheet uploads or offer the heavily abused prospect of  LSMW but in the end what thousands of customers accept reluctantly, is that they also need something different to the slick and flashy front ends and high performance plumbing.

They need something that makes them more effective in the use of their systems irrespective of how ugly, deformed and unfashionable they may seem to be. What they want sometimes is a sauce dispenser that hitches up to a large bottle and can be used by anyone irrespective of aesthetic preferences in an intuitive and usable way – they don’t need to know how it works, just that it addresses their needs and want despite the self inhibiting choices that they may have made in the past.

They want flexibility to have sauce the way they want it, in the container and serving size that suits them and their role.

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      Author's profile photo Paul Hardy
      Paul Hardy

      I want to say what I have observed and then someone tell me the obvious thing I am missing:-

      I am talking about people who work in an office and use a computer at their desk. Some may say there are no such people any more but I see them every day. This is going to be my sole focus, so any responses about salesmen who never go into the office are not teally what I am talking about.

      Until "recently" the way to go - for peple based physically in an office - was to have an ERP system running on your PC/laptop via the GUI (client), and have also something like Office 2010 running on your GUI (client) as well. Both had instant reponse times, SAP looked hideously ugly, Microsoft looked great.

      Now we want everything to run in the web browser. This seems slower to me, from direct observation, my guess is this is because you have to do an extra round trip.

      SAP had Web Dynpro,I am sure if people wanted to access this from the web (the logic is no companies deploy anything on-site any more) that is good, but I have seen companies running Web Dynpro transactions from their head office from their PC's , you get the same gray screens, just a bit uglier, with a slower response time.

      I am told it is impossible to have a user experience that runs on your PC as fast as say, Microsoft Office, and looks as good. It has to be in a web broswer. If that is ture what email system have I been using all these years?

      Screen Personas is a web browser based solution. So is Fiori. Or have I got that wrong?

      So, the question I would ask is thus :  is there ever going to be a client (non-broswer) UI for SAP that does not look like the worst thing in the world......

      My guess is the answer is the same as it was in 2000 .... Enjoy!

      Cheersy Cheers


      Author's profile photo Clinton Jones
      Clinton Jones
      Blog Post Author

      Thanks for the comment Paul

      We refer to the SAP UI in the GUI and Portal as the classic Battleship Grey!

      Yes, you are right Personas and Fiori is all browser experience - this youtube video shows the experience SAP Fiori Demo Video - YouTube

      In the end IT seems to love browser based solutions and most heavy duty users seem to hate them.


      Author's profile photo Paul Hardy
      Paul Hardy

      At a guess I would say the heavy duty IT users don't like browser based solutions because they would spend half their day watching the whirling circle of death, whilst on the phone the customer ( like me or you phoning up the bank or electricty company or whatever)  gets more and more upset, whilst at the same time the heavy duty user is getting paid on how many transactions they perforrm.

      IT people on the other hand, may be thinknig more about how artistically pleasing this looks, surely both the user and the end cutsomer will love this, we don't have such time pressure, we can watch whirling circles as mch as we want, and we stll get paid our fixed monthly salary.

      Now, normally I hate the buzz words, but is not this what "design thinking" is about? Putting yourself in the shoes of various participants in a process and then thinking about if your solution is really appropriate?

      Cheersy Cheers


      Author's profile photo Stephen Johannes
      Stephen Johannes

      I find that it's the exact opposite in sales where users are demanding that the IT solutions are as simple as facebook (you know posting a picture, or status update), but hang on to complex business processes that can't be reduced to a single action.

      So what did we end up doing, we went towards mobile applications which are really just "specialized thick clients" on a small device instead of a desktop.  It's amazing however that browser folks keep trying to turn the browser into more of a fat client via adding stuff in(ala chrome/firefox extensions) or building more javascript to download, and hoping we all have 4G connections to support the inefficient transfer of data via HTML/XML/etc.

      The worst offenders are the cloud developers who insist that we must download clunky IDE's that still run slow despite multi-core machines instead of browser based development, yet scoff at old gray-screens for end-users, but feel fat-clients are fine for developers as long they come from the hip open source solution of their choice.

      I'm not sure what the answer is, but mobile "fat clients" seem to be trendy choice for today's world.

      Take care,


      Author's profile photo Clinton Jones
      Clinton Jones
      Blog Post Author

      the sales guys know how i feel about them and their needs. Many of them wouldn't bother with any kind of system, they're mostly content with a paper napkin or the back of a business card. For them the order book is everything and the more freeform it is the happier hey are.

      selling solutions like crm are actually more important to management than the salesperson in the trench, the salesmen see systems data maintenance as busy work and low value add hence the hatred of them in pretty much all forms that require any kind of effort.