Intranet Market Alignment

Posted: July 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Design & UX | 1 Comment »

James Robertson of Step Two Designs raises his flag in support of quality design for intranets here.

The focus in this excellent article is on the visual design layer, and I support the point of view whole-heartedly.  I do wish to add some thoughts to the following:

Staff need have confidence that the intranet will provide them with accurate and up-to-date information. An old, ugly and dated site sends the opposite message, that the intranet is uncared for and under-resourced.

There is an also an emotional element to intranet design. Intranets should reflect the cultures of the organisations they serve, and can also help to drive cultural change.

At a basic level, intranets need to have a clear brand and identity of their own, distinct from the public-facing site and providing continuity as the organisation evolves and restructures.

What’s almost universally overlooked is the intranet brand’s deeper relationship to the company brand(s). The intranet should be a sub-brand of the corporate identity, and that relationship should run deeper than visual design. In a broader sense, an organization should consider it’s employees as another important segment of their go-to-market strategy, with a combination of shared needs vis-a-vis messaging and positioning, and unique needs that are as distinct as any other customer or prospect segment.

Disconnect in the intranet experience has much to do with the intranet being at a distance from the company’s goals and market strategies, and visual design in and of itself will not do much to align the employee segment with the organization’s strategic goals.

I’d add one last bit to the following:

New site design should be combined with broader and more significant changes, whether it’s a complete site rework or incremental improvements to key functionality.

…or when signifigant changes to public-facing brand/market messaging and design are planned. The good news is, the excellent design examples in James’ post show a high degree of consistency with the corresponding public sites in most cases.  Employees in those organizations are certain to feel more connected and aligned with their companies” strategy and go-to-market identity.

Enterprise interface – user centricity is only one component

Posted: June 8th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Design & UX | No Comments »

Whenever Gartner analyst and enterprisey maven Thomas Otter writes about User Experience its thought provoking and provocative. We need more like him in the enterprise app space.

Citing the work of Gartner colleagues Ray Valdes, Eric Knipp and David Mitchell Smith on HTML5 and Flash in the enterprise context, Thomas shared the following:

…the root causes for a suboptimal user experience consist of lack of appropriate process and governance, and lack of a genuine commitment to a quality user experience. Such a commitment would lead organizations to adopt a user-centered, usability-oriented development process. Rather than taking these steps, we see a lot of projects that are “stakeholder-driven” (i.e., driven by internal politics). Very few organizations center development around user needs by relying on objectively measured data about user behavior. Most enterprises don’t seem to care enough about the user experience to change their habits (in terms of processes that are developer-driven, vendor-driven and stakeholder-driven, rather than user-driven).

I agree but contend there’s more complexity than a commitment to quality user experiences and robust user-centric development processes can overcome on their own. User experience shouldn’t be centered on any single aspect at the expense of another, and I’ve seen a rush to user centricity focus too much on the bits and pieces of an interface and lose track of business imperatives and practical realities.

Users need to get their due but that must happen in the context of what the company needs them to do in order to accomplish goals and strategies that the software is meant to enable. Giving the user what they ‘want’ may be at odds with what the company needs. Business goals come first, and user experience must be reconciled to those goals.

IT always has a position on customizing UIs, often for good reason. That needs to be reconciled against the impact of a poor UI – whether it’s productivity loss, missed opportunities and targets, non-compliance, etc., those factors may override the impact of rework when upgrades and patches are applied. To be certain, vendors don’t make it easy for companies to affect UI changes – they historically discourage them, so it’s no surprise IT wants to stay as close to shipped as possible.

Ray, Eric and David are astute analysts so I suspect they would suggest that governance is the proper forum for working through these issues. I agree, and balancing of business and stakeholder needs, user experience and needs and IT support/sustainability should be at the top of their mandate. In my experience, governance with that robustness and commitment is hard to find.

Deja view

Posted: May 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Design & UX | No Comments »

I’ve often noted that design work done a just few years back can look dated – I feel this is very true with web properties.  So when a site I designed some four years ago finally went live recently, I was surprised to see that  it looked – pretty good!

Let me explain: when my job at Citigroup was discontinued in early 2007 I had been working on a strategic redesign of the Corporate intranet. New portal platform, personalization, customization, editorial workflow, global reach, multiple languages – a fairly complex set of requirements met with a careully thought-out approach. We’d done usability testing all around the world and were working hard on socializing it to get buy-in with the business lines (some of which have been sold off since then).

Given the turmoil Citi has gone through and the tens of thousands of people like me who were laid off, I wasn’t surprised to hear that the project wasn’t exactly front-burner. After a while, I forgot abut it.

The other week I happened to be looking over the shoulder of someone who was working remotely on Citi’s VPN and there it was – live at last. The visual layer had been tweaked but the information architecture, structural elements, personalization and user customizations were all there. Shortly after, one of my colleagues still at Citi contacted me to let me know it had finally made it.

It’s odd to think of that solution maintaining viability over time in some kind of suspended animation, and my instinctive reaction was to wonder how it could still be viable. And yet, I’ve worked on similar solutions for global companies since then and I’ve come around to thinking that a good architecture and well-planned foundational structure can have a greater shelf life than I might think, and in this case the changes to the visual design (generally simplifications – IMHO too much so) allowed the structure to do it’s work while providing a ‘skin’ that’s harmonious with the current brand identity.

So I’ve come away feeling a ‘job well done’ satisfaction, and I’m both pleased and amused that this solution that was sketched out so long ago has finally been released…the longest gestation I know of.

Pragmatic UX

Posted: May 12th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Design & UX | No Comments »

I enjoy it when a UX practitioner takes a step back from the art, science and ethos of usability and shares a practical view of how to play nice with other disciplines (and customers).

Jared Lewandowski does just this in an article in UX Magazine where he relates how had to pick up a partially started project with vague goals and little time, and turned it into a win.

“…the reality is that UX professionals are often asked to accomplish a lot with very little time or resources. This means we frequently have to get creative about how we can focus and speed up our work to deliver strong results within the constraints we’re given.”

wtf dude?

Posted: May 4th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Commentary, Design & UX | No Comments »

Excuse the occaslionally wonky appearance of things here while I try to break in a new pair of shoes theme.

Studies prove Vanilla is the most popular ERP flavor

Posted: December 13th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Design & UX, Systematic Viewpoints | No Comments »

I’ve been watching the kerfuffle over Scoble’s post and chewing on the subject some more. As Thomas points out, we’ve been over this before but it still merits thought.

My perspective? I have little insight into how usability and interface refinements will make their way into ERP products as delivered because I don’t build the stuff. I’ve been responsible for implementing it, I certainly have had to use it, and now I make a fine living making it usable in big-ass companies.

I used to take the stance that there was no reason that enterprise software shouldn’t be any harder to use than transactions at Amazon, eBay or [your favorite e-tailer here]. Those sites buffer a lot of complexity and multiple integrations from us tender humans.

I can name 2 differences that matter. First, the effect of the money trail – if users of commercial interfaces can’t complete their transaction, revenue stops. The enterprise doesn’t always have that level of motivation, depending on the function in question. Second, I’ve yet to see an organization that has deep global processes. Of course certain processes are mandated into localized versions, but more often its a reflection of the M&A activity that grew the organization on top of the regional variations.

Most often, companies fund a ‘vanilla’ ERP deployment and hope that their users can get through some training. It’s a big challenge in global organizations to quantify the variability, organize all the assets, apply security and personalization and make the stuff easier to use. Given the lack of budget for usability features and the heavy lifting it takes, it’s little wonder that most organizations aren’t taking the steps necessary, but why aren’t they demanding better user experience from their enterprise software?

In most cases I think it’s because they too have been conditioned to think that it must be complex. Perhaps this comes down from the days when the computers were behind glass and their keepers wore lab coats. All too often the IT community projects a certain machismo around ERP usability:

  • It’s non-essential, ‘nice to have’
  • It’s a ‘training issue’.
  • Not an issue, everything passed UAT.
  • We delivered the user requirements

Enterprises should share some of the blame and adding ease of use is to the features they’re requiring vendors to deliver. I’m seeing this begin to happen as ERP maturity evolves within companies. Users are speaking up, and in some cases where metrics are not being met it’s being linked to usability issues.

Is something happening?

Posted: November 27th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Design & UX, Systematic Viewpoints | No 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.

Looking at Silverlight in the Air through a Prism

Posted: November 6th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Design & UX, Systematic Viewpoints | No Comments »

Microsoft Silverlight, Adobe Air and Mozilla Prism, that is. I wish I were clever enough to fit Yahoo Widgets into that title, but my brain just didn’t go there. In any case interesting things may be going on with interfaces. There’s a sudden confluence of ‘solutions’ aimed at pulling experiences out of the browser. This has some positive aspects, the browser remains a page-oriented environment and it demands a degree of bending to it’s will. In the enterprise space, there is great appeal to detaching meaningful experiences from the monolithic approach that ERP delivers.

Is there a downside? I can imagine desktops becoming cluttered with multiple disparate interfaces (You are in a maze of twisty little GUIs, all unalike) with a lack of context providing the conceptual or actual relationships between them. Do people even want to have all these little bits floating about? The proportion of folks who are able to manipulate their computing environments remains low, and I for one don’t believe that Millenials are somehow naturally equipped or even inclined to be more than consumers of services. In some quarters there seems to be an almost mystical attachment to the idea that young-uns are deeply skilled laptop Jedis. I’d like to see some real-world testing, my gut says that they can easily learn to use new apps and devices but they’re just as inclined to ignore customization as us dinosaurs. I grew up on TV, that doesn’t make me an expert on signal propagation or any other technical aspect of the medium. Just a consumer, sorry.

That said, I’m thrilled to see interest in alternative interfaces at places like SAP. I believe the real benefits will come when the UX and design people get to apply their disciplines. It feels like we’re at the start of some innovative thinking around enterprise application interfaces, and it’s about freakin’ time.


Posted: March 22nd, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Design & UX, Systematic Viewpoints | No Comments »

I use Google’s personalized home page. This week Google enabled ‘themes’, an interesting break in their graphical standards. I find myself wondering why they went forward with this – notwithstanding a few playful tricks they’re little more than window dressing. The selections are limited and lean towards the cartoonish. I’m not critiquing the designs; my point is that if Google is going to allow us to tweak the UI I’d like to see more substantial controls like allowing modules to span multiple columns for better readability or changing font sizes, backgrounds or colors on a per-module basis.

Unsafe at any speed

Posted: March 7th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Archive, Design & UX, Systematic Viewpoints | No Comments »

Two weeks ago I picked up Audi’s new Q7 SUV. It’s my third Audi, having had an A6 sedan for the last few years and the A6 Avant (wagon) prior to that, along with various euro-SUVs. I love Audis and the Q7 seems to be a great vehicle on all counts except for one glaring problem. German automakers like Audi, Mercedes-Benz and BMW have adopted a master controller for many functions in the car. Audi has MMI, BMW has iDrive and Mercedes calls it COMAND. The thinking is to provide access to controls and settings while reducing the ‘confusing’ array of dashboard controls.

Changing a radio station or CD track requires multiple steps. At worst the driver needs to select a function via one of eight buttons surrounding a knob, turn the knob to select a menu item and press the knob to select the function. If you are already in that function, you eliminate the intial button push but still have the turn and click. I have to take my eyes off the road frequently to check my selections. No matter how close to my line of sight the display is I’m no longer aware of what’s happening around me.

I acknowledge that these systems are known to require either long or steep learning curves. I want to give it a chance, but I hate it. Controls for vehicles need to be direct and avoid visual diversion beyond feedback for aiming at a control. I acknowledge that these systems are known to require either long or steep learning curves. I want to give it a chance, but I hate it. A system that complicates simple actions and requires learning to perform the same functions I perform simply and directly in my other vehicles is flawed and is exposing me to risk. My wife is completely intimidated by it.