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You probably wonder how improving User Experience relates to rethinking IT? There are some fundamental changes happening in how software is being developed. Having been in IT for many years before coming to SAP, I can clearly see these changes happening on both sides: at SAP and now also in our customer base.

To illustrate, let me share the story of one of our biggest customers: when this company was preparing to implement SAP software several years ago, it gathered 600 of its brightest people from all over the world in one location, with the goal of defining templates to represent the end-to-end processes for the entire company.  Of particular interest were standardization of processes and localization to meet the various regulations in the different countries they operate in. After the system rollout, they experienced adoption problems within their user community.

Years later, I had a chance to speak with one of the executives from this customer. Realizing in hindsight that the failure shouldn’t have been a big surprise, he said, “We spent all our time learning about the software, our business processes and the various regulations in the countries we operate in but we never looked at how the end user works.”

And that’s exactly the change we’re seeing at SAP. Gone are the days when users are incidental to developing a business solution. In the case I outlined the customer went back to its team and said, “I want you to forget everything you know about software and processes. Instead make the user the focus, and find out what they really need to make their work lives better.”

At SAP we have started this transition with a little over a year ago: moving away from a feature and function focus to a user experience focus when developing our software, suspending our 40+ knowledge of business software and industries to listen and observe how people work. How did we approach it? We applied design thinking to our projects to ensure that we really develop for our end users, not just for the sake of new functionality.

We do not talk solutions without first understanding the user’s need, the right problem to solve. But what makes this approach different compared to how we worked before? We are now digging deeper into how our end users work, we observe them while they work at their workplace, ask questions, talk to them. By doing so, we are getting a true understanding of their motivations – why they are doing what they are doing, why they need to do certain tasks, what value is generated by what they’re doing. By observing users, empathizing with them, and really seeking to understand what they do, we learn far more about how they want to work than our initial impressions might suggest. We have a good and true insights on what will help them fulfill their daily tasks that can then be reflected in the software that we develop for this particular user role.

But all this is not easy to adopt in scale without making the path to adoption clear and easy.  Hence, we introduced a lightweight design-led development process that serves as our product teams’ map to user experience.  This, in my opinion made the path to change easier to traverse.

Our customers are starting the same initiatives in their own organizations. They see that their users are dissatisfied with software that provides a whole bunch of functionality, but is probably not always easy to use or does not work the way they experience software in their homes.  At the behest of the aforementioned executive, we set to start a program in his company to finally “bring the user at the center.”

The customer agreed to adopt design thinking and SAP’s design-led development process to bring change into their organization and to influence the standard software developed by SAP. The customer takes this commitment seriously. Where as before, we could only engage with their IT organization, they now insist that we involve, not one or two but, hundreds of users in the co-innovation process. In addition, we also agreed to include their IT group and key users in all relevant steps of our design-led development process. Their IT experts want to learn first hand the new SAP way of developing software that’s focused on experience rather than features and function.

We still hear the concern about “managing users’ expectations” but this customer understands that the alternative is worse.  “With the old way, we cannot deliver everything that the users want anyway. Worse, when we deliver something, they resist. With the new approach, the user gets to participate, gets heard, gets to work on the solution with us. I believe this will get us much closer to what users need and to better adoption.”

In my next post, I’ll describe how design thinking could actually change the way as specific role – in this case an MRP planner – works, as well as the benefits of using this approach.

Learn more about the History of Design Thinking at SAP.

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