I recently attended an event, hosted by HCL and one of our strategic partners, for customers in an industry where complex maintenance is commonplace. During the event, a demonstration was provided of how new technologies were being used to improve the user-experience associated with ‘Electronic Work Instructions’. I have no doubt that the maintenance of complex assets is indeed a complicated task, a fact that was more than reinforced by the messy, and to the uninitiated, highly confusing collection of screens, tabs and fields on display. What was really worrying to me was that the screens, built using the latest user-interface technologies, had seemingly been modeled upon the old screens. While no doubt an improvement, in no way could I classify these screens as remotely close to a delivering a positive user experience.
Was I the only one thinking this? It seems that maybe I was. The audience, all highly experienced users themselves, seemed very receptive to the new screens. This got me thinking, as an industry have we become so accustomed and comfortable with a poor user-experience that our frame of reference has become completely warped?
Consumerization of IT
SAP launched R3 many more years ago than I care to remember. For those like me, who remember R2, R3 not only represented a shift from mainframe to client-server architectures but also a step change in user interface. But here we are, many years later, running ECC 6.0 and in many respects the user-experience remains the same. There have been attempts to change the status quo along the way. Who can forget EnjoySAP? However, none of these appear to have made a major impact on the way the vast majority of users interact with SAP’s applications.
But there is hope. A hope that springs from the proliferation of mobile devices and the consumerization of IT. Consumers have quickly adopted and then driven the development of mobile technology. In the process, new benchmarks for user experience have been established and are readily transparent across the extensive library of applications available for download from the App Store. These consumers, so accomplished at managing their personal lives through their mobile devices, now expect to be able to do their job using the same mobile devices and through comparable user-interfaces.
Moving business transactions from the desktop and laptop to mobile devices offers a new platform through which to enrich the user experience. Instead of spending money to improve the experience on existing platforms, organizations are going to spend the money on achieving the productivity gains and revenue enhancement opportunities associated with mobility, and in the process dramatically improve the user-experience.
Keep it Simple, Stupid!
That was the motto on one of the very first large scale implementations I worked on. It is as relevant today as it was then. The goal of a user-interface should always be to make it as simple and intuitive as possible. So what principles can we apply, and, as an example, what might this mean for a field service engineer whose days consist of visiting a series of customers to repair or perform routine maintenance on an installed base of equipment?
Process Centric – ERP systems are modular, table driven, and transactional in nature. Businesses and users perform processes that more often than not require many transactions, across many modules, and in some cases across applications. A simple user interface must be process centric and disguise the underlying complexity.
Don’t start the day with a list of service orders that contains basic information about each. Start the day with a map that shows the number, location, and expected start times of each customer visit, along with the route to be taken. Allow the engineer to hover over a location and see basic information about the work to be performed and any specific instructions or alerts with respect to that visit.
Guided – A simple user interface should guide the user through the business process and not be dependent. It should engage the user in a dialogue about what they want to do from a business perspective, not which transaction, screen, or tab they want to view.
Don’t ask the engineer to remember to update the technical and/or user-status upon arrival at a customer location and upon completion of the job. Use GPS to recognize that they have arrived at the customer and prompt them with a simple ‘Start the Job’ button. Guide them visually through the steps needed to perform the work and when they reach the last step, prompt them with a box for an electronic signature from the customer that automatically sets the job status to ‘complete.’
Intelligent – A simple user interface can happily co-exist with a complex and highly intelligent business process. In-Memory and mobile technologies are going to fundamentally change the way work is done and simple user interfaces, far from hindering such progress, can help to accelerate adoption.
Don’t rely upon the engineer to realize they are running 30 minutes behind schedule upon completion of the last job, and that combined with bad traffic, they are likely to arrive at the next job at least 60 minutes behind schedule. Calculate how far behind schedule they are upon customer signature, and automatically add to this the further delay expected from the traffic. Present the engineer with the estimated delay and ask them if they would like to inform not only the next customer but all remaining customers in the day. If the answer is yes, then automatically inform those customers via their preferred channel of communication (e.g. email, SMS, automated outbound dialer, or other) so that the engineer can get back on the road as soon as possible.
The Challenge of the Millennials
Loosely defined as those workers between the ages of 18 and 35, the Millenials will comprise nearly half of the U.S. workforce by 2020 (Forbes). This group, and every one that follows them, will have grown up on a diet of user friendly applications on their phones, tablets, and laptops. Welcome them to your company and show them the complex SAP or Oracle screens they will now be required to use for their jobs, and they may struggle to resist the urge to scream and make a beeline for the nearest exit. This generation expects business technology and enterprise applications to be as seamless as what they use in their everyday lives. They know it should be simpler than this. Making it so will be a major factor in the recruitment of top talent, starting now.
It’s not just the Millennials we should be concerned about. A poorly designed user experience has serious implications for productivity. Just think about how much more productive the field service engineer would be as a result of some of the suggestions made above.
It also has serious implications for training costs. Think about the percentage of project costs that is typically dedicated to creating user-manuals, online training tools, and classroom training. It is not insignificant. Think about industries and functions like call centers that must deal with high staff turnover rates, and the cost to perform training that today can take several weeks for 25% or more of the workforce each and every year; now think about reducing that training to just a couple of days.
Improving the user interface isn’t just a “nice idea;” it can have major business impact in terms of cost avoidance, productivity enhancements, and improved customer service.
Go Forth and Simplify
We all need to shift our frame of reference as to what constitutes an acceptable user experience for the new workforce. The underlying functionality of enterprise applications will remain complex, but that complexity should be hidden behind more process-centric, guided, and intelligent user interfaces. We need to recognize that complex systems and simple user interfaces can not only co-exist, but that together they will deliver material business benefits.
Let’s start by throwing away the instruction manual for enterprise applications, and creating user-experiences that don’t need one.