User Experience Insights
Johns Hopkins delivers simple SAP time entry app with a better user experience
A culture of teamwork led to success
The Johns Hopkins culture emphasizes the value of a good user experience (UX). They speak about this often at SAP conferences, sharing examples of their design thinking process, feedback loops with users, willingness to innovate, and their completed projects. For this project, a broad collection of IT experts participated in finding the problems, building solutions, and implementing them. IT leadership also played a critical role in creating a culture of direct communication with end users and active collaboration.
The UX Champions team at Johns Hopkins
Here is a partial list of the key roles involved in this project.
- Executive Director of HR – she used to work on the SAP team, so she had existing relationships with IT that allowed them to work more effectively together
- Vice President, Financial and Administrative Systems – instilled a culture of IT working directly with business users. Over a few years, he removed layers of complexity and intermediaries that allowed much closer collaboration between IT and the business
- Solution Architect – built the UX team and instilled a culture of talking directly to end users while still collaborating with the business
- ERP Business Analyst (Keith Haggard) – worked with the end users (students and approvers, in this project) and showed prototypes that IT improved based on feedback
- ERP Business Analyst (Robin Denning) – built the solutions for time approval
- ERP Business Analyst (Sharon Schreter) – built the solutions for time approval
- UX Architect (Sam Livingston) – managed resources across the IT team and ensured that people had enough time to spend on the project
Poor usability frustrates occasional users
As an educational institution, JHU has many student workers who must log their time to receive their pay checks. Since students often work in several different jobs, their time entry must reflect this. In addition, many students are part of work-study programs, which place strict limits on work hours. So, accurate reporting is extremely important to ensure both timely payment and compliance with work-study rules.
Students are supposed to enter their time into an SAP system, which JHU introduced in 2016. A poor user experience with confusing screens led most students to enter their time on paper and give the timesheet to their supervisor, who had to enter the time into the system and then approve the hours. In fact, an internal audit showed that only 10 people, out of hundreds of student workers, used the time entry system as intended.
The approvers had difficulties as well. Most are not HR professionals and only use SAP once a week to approve student employee time. The approval screen had many fields which weren’t needed and only served to complicate the process.
Neither the students nor the approvers are expert users who can be expected to navigate complex screens with dozens of entry fields. A summary of the UX issues related to time entry appear in the table below.
The need for simplification was clear
Both the HR and IT staff knew they needed a better process. The goal was to offload time entry from the approvers back to the students themselves. The team identified several problems that they wanted to solve.
|UX problem||Proposed solution|
|SAP screens had too many fields and were confusing for non-SAP experts||Provide a simple, intuitive screen, even for novices|
|The long position descriptions all looked the same on the narrow phone screens the students used to enter their time data||Display project descriptions that are clear and unambiguous on a mobile device|
|Students entered information incorrectly and did not get paid as a result||Include a simple way for students and approvers to verify that data is entered correctly|
|It was hard to run reports that aggregated information across various criteria since the system did not contain proper data||Have a simple way for approvers to run reports that provide visibility to the business on student worker status|
Hard to use systems can intimidate the people that rely on them
In addition to the technical issues, the complex screens also created problems on a human level. Many of the approvers felt intimidated by the screens and, as a result, did not feel good about themselves or their ability to complete the work. In many cases, they did not know who to call for assistance, since they did not work with the SAP support teams. Training was sparse, often passed down as tribal knowledge from person to person.
Since the overall scope of the problem was relatively small compared to broader enterprise IT issues, this would not have made the “top 5 list” of IT issues that would be scheduled for a fix in any given year. But, when IT learned about this situation, it seemed like a quick and simple win, so they started thinking about a solution.
Observation, listening, and empathy leads to innovative solutions
Initially, there was an organizational separation between IT and the students who used the time entry system. Various approvers reported problems, but IT needed a way to obtain insights directly from the students and approvers. The line managers were able to arrange for the UX experts to observe students and approvers using the SAP system. Watching students try to enter data made it very easy to understand the problem with the existing approach and why people reverted to using paper. Watching approvers making approvals made it very easy to understand their challenges and highlighted the need for a simpler approval process.
- “How nice it is to be able to work directly with the users and get immediate feedback”
– Sr. ERP Business Analyst
Since much of the project was completed during the COVID pandemic, the IT team met with users virtually via screen share. They would have done in-person observation if it would have been safe to do so. Their focus on asking “why” led them to the importance of search functionality for the approvers.
With a solid understanding of the problems the users were facing, the IT team built some initial prototypes. Within three iterations, they had the final product. By taking the time to work closely with all the different user personas, they were able to create the new solution from idea to full production in 4-5 weeks.
The observation process and talking directly to users led to some new insights. In addition to the time entry process being confusing to both employees and approvers, it was difficult to run reports on that data. No one mentioned this during their initial interviews about time entry. The issue only came to light after clean data was in the system and people were not able to analyze it easily.
Students who did not get paid would ask the project lead why. Usually, the first question back to them was “did you enter your time?” There was not an easy way to look this up, which was unfortunate as the time lookup process is used over 1000 times per year. The original process involved using an SAP transaction called CADO, or “display timesheet.” The IT team would not have learned about CADO unless they watched the users doing their work.
- “I have never heard of that.”
– a business user during the app demonstration
The culture of 2-way communication rather than someone submitting an IT request and waiting for the result made it much easier to deliver a solution that fully met the users stated and unstated needs. Better understanding on both sides led to a solution that addressed everyone’s requirements. The IT team is always interviewing users, surveying them to learn user pain points, and going deeper to understand why people need what they are asking for.
Now, people access the time entry system with simple apps that they access from tiles in the SAP Fiori launchpad: one for employees to enter time and one for approvers to verify time entry and approve time. Both groups of users feel empowered, as they are confident with the simplified apps. The new apps did not require any training, unlike the original SAP transactions.
Keith and his JHU IT colleagues made the process easier for student employees and their administrators. Maybe an even bigger win than the nice, new apps was that everyone felt heard and understood by IT. The culture of collaboration, along with the tools and techniques they used, will allow them to continue to deliver innovation to the university community for years to come.
To learn more about the SAP Fiori user experience, please visit the community topic page.
For the SAP UX team, Peter Spielvogel.