Is something happening?

Posted: November 27th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Design & UX, Systematic Viewpoints | View Comments

I’ve spent over half of the last 10 years helping enterprises get greater use of their eBusiness systems. Having been by turns a graphic designer, IT and development manager, user experience advocate and close ally of business, marketing and communications professionals and strategist mine is a particularly multidisciplinary approach.

I sense the beginnings of a change coming about, although I think it will be some time before it’s fully manifested in products and ultimately in the workplace. I’m still trying to hash this nascent trend out, so bear with me and please do call me out or remix these thoughts.

How did we end up here?
If I had to describe a typical ERP deployment (necessarily a fiction, there’s no such thing) , it would have the characteristics of an installation – scaled to the usage estimates, tuned to perform acceptably but not optimally under real-world conditions, configuration changes only, no customizations allowed by IT.

It took longer and cost more than projections. Business requirements were gathered but often ended up being deferred so the critical path could be cleared of dependencies that would incur further costs and/or delays, worsening the tension that already existed between the business audience and IT. A launch is achieved with one or two key business functions being supported. ‘Features’ are rolled out over multiple releases until all the intended functional solutions are live.

Now What?
What happens next is highly variable. Frequently budgets have been strained to the point where planned change management activities are scaled back or even eliminated in favor of some form of training. This is often remote and offered for a limited time after a launch event. Recorded training is available for new employees – if they can find it.

Professional users in the functional areas begin to struggle with the gaps between local procedures and the methodology of the system as delivered. Specific pain points arise: inconsistent data sources, multiple screens to perform single tasks, you name it. Workarounds abound – job aids and cheat sheets are circulated, and a body of underground tacit knowledge required to successfully perform job functions begins to arise. Eventually metrics begin to suggest that the ROI is not being met, and the blaming begins.

What’s to be done?
How it plays out depends on how the people responsible for the systems are rewarded. I’ve just re-read an interview with Donald Norman from 2000 where he took the usability profession to task for not understanding how business people typically get promoted, and emphasizing long-term benefits to the wrong audience. His point was if a manager gets a very narrowly defined task completed without making a mess of their P&L sheet for the year, they get promoted. Usability? Service quality? Benefit realization? Not my job – that’s for the next person to achieve.

Companies are frequently motivated to address problems arising from ERP deployments because senior management relies on them for critical processes and key data and they are not achieving the desired results. They assign that ‘next person’ to improve the system. Sometimes they call in folks like me.

Over time and through many engagements we’ve identified a spectrum of possibilities that improve in varying ways the business results that ERP supports, depending on a given company’s appetite for change and customizations. It’s not about user-centric design, although that’s a key component. It’s about tasks and goals and how people get through complex, lengthy processes. It’s about how the systems support the strategic goals of a company. Sorry to say, no system delivers that out of the box.

Vendors know the truth.
This challenge is very clear to ERP vendors. Their interfaces are brittle and monolithic; corporate IT experiences so much pain customizing and maintaining them that they have very compelling arguments against modifications. SaaS companies like and Workday are invading their turf.

Oracle knows this, but they’re too busy rationalizing their product lines to be able to address it head-on yet.
SAP knows this and even though they provide tools for IT to tweak interfaces they are not used in may enterprises for the reasons above.

Change is coming…maybe.
One of the biggest challenges in any system is how to design for large numbers of people across many disciplines. Many of today’s applications try to accommodate just about everyone, creating extraordinary complexity. This applies as much to Microsoft Office products as it does to ERP. Word and Outlook are ‘feature-rich’ to the point of being ridiculous for must folks.

Other paradigms for improving the interface to ERP have been in play, most prevalent being the dashboard. They can be terrific for information consumers but they are often implemented with limited interactivity for decision support. A very compelling set of demonstrations was given at SAP’s Munich TechEd event showing interfaces and widgets that begin to decouple interactions and data manipulation from the ERP interface. Oracle and SAP both have dedicated groups looking at ways to exploit the best of Web 2.0 technologies and interfaces to the business solutions.

I’m not sure whether folks can cope with widgets floating around their computer desktops, monitoring data, work lists, or enabling faster/simpler transactions. But in general people prefer use-specific interfaces and devices over multipurpose ones. I commonly use the kitchen as a case in point. Your own kitchen probably has a range/oven, a microwave and some form of toaster-oven. 3 devices, all specialized interfaces for making food hot in a chamber.

Folks like Don Norman have envisioned more embedded computing and fewer general purpose systems in the future. In the last year specialized computing products have bloomed in the consumer space: digital picture frames at Target, iPhone and iPod Touch, Chumby. Perhaps the general public’s embrace of Web 2.0 interfaces (which seem to tend towards the single-purpose) is beginning to create sufficient demand that the product managers for ERP systems can contemplate adding them to feature sets. For some interesting insight into the dynamics of that process, see “Why 2.0 Didn’t Start in the Enterprise” by Paul Pedrazzi.

How does this impact the enterprise?
I see a shift away from the massive interface, the all-in-one portal and the soup-to-nuts dashboard in favor of compact, customizable and intelligent widgets, applets and services that can be called upon demand or pegged to a corner of the screen. I see a move away from the browser and the page paradigm that demands information architectures and navigation, towards a set of easily grabbed tools that I can use in combination or snap together like Lego blocks to solve my here and now business problem, and move on. The browser will still have it’s place because it’s a great interface for linear processes, but it will stop trying to be everything to everyone. I’m almost reminded of the March 1997 issue of Wired magazine, which breathlessly declared the death of the browser. I still have my copy.

When I watch the Demo Jam video I think that it’s some of the better thinking I’ve seen in this space in quite some time, but realistically speaking these innovations aren’t ready for general availability. Enterprises are often years away from major upgrades of ERP; in fact the days of the sweeping upgrade are probably past for many organizations. It’s incremental change that will be coming, so I don’t expect the landscape to change drastically in the next few years. But it’s an exciting trend and when these innovations begin to creep into the enterprise, I fully expect demand for more to rise.

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