If user interfaces are supposed to be simple and intuitive, why is managing them so complicated?
First of all, there are many different types of enterprise users, and they all have varying needs — so one UI rarely fits all. In fact, users typically are not fully productive unless more than one type of interface is available to them.
Second, the explosion of UI innovation in consumer software — from new generations of Microsoft Windows and Apple iTunes to mobile device offerings to Facebook and Twitter — has both advanced users’ UI expectations and fundamentally changed the conversations people are having with their IT departments.
Third, UI technologies and programming languages evolve faster than other technology layers in a typical enterprise landscape. Each new wave of UI innovation can be disruptive, causing users to ask, “Why doesn’t our software look like this?”
The need for innovative UI options, designs, and technologies conflicts with IT’s need to minimize TCO and keep core systems stable. But the cost of not innovating can also be high, since some UI changes can lead to big improvements in user productivity and satisfaction. To alleviate this UI anxiety, SAP customers are seeking guidance on how to balance innovation and stability in their UI approach, and they want to better understand SAP’s UI philosophy and strategy before moving forward with their own plans. With these points in mind, let’s dive into the details.
Addressing the 3 Types of SAP Users: The “Core and Extensions” Strategy
The key to understanding SAP’s UI strategy is to look at the types of people using SAP software. SAP provides UI technologies for three general end user groups, each with different UI needs:
- Frequent users. People who work with SAP software frequently — order management agents and HR administrators, for example — need a full-featured client with access to several applications. Typically, these users are trained to use the software.
- Occasional users. Some people use SAP software infrequently — only to enter expenses or approve purchases, for example. A full-featured client is not necessary. Ideally, the UIs they work with should require minimal training and support.
- Unique users. Some users have very specialized UI needs. To be the most productive, they need completely customized interfaces — ones that include voice interaction or highly graphical, interactive views of information, for example.
SAP addresses the distinct needs of each of these groups. For the frequent users, SAP offers core clients such as SAP GUI. For the occasional users, we build packaged extensions such as interactive forms and mobile interfaces. And for the unique users, we provide development tools to enable custom extensions to the UI. This “core and extensions” approach gives our customers the flexibility to meet the needs of everyone who accesses SAP solutions as part of their work. This strategy not only applies to our current UI solutions, but is also at the heart of future innovation.
Most SAP customers are familiar with the SAP GUI desktop client but are often unaware of the other choices available. Let’s look at some of the UI options that best serve each type of user (see Figure 1 for a summary).
||A brief overview of several user interface options available to SAP customers
UI Opportunities for Frequent Users
SAP NetWeaver Business Client, originally developed for mid-market customers but now also available for large enterprise users, is a next-generation desktop client that offers a single point of entry to business applications. It enables a seamless evolution of the user experience, from SAP GUI-based applications to newer Web Dynpro-based UIs, so it is a good option for frequent users who want to upgrade the look and feel of their UI and incorporate more integrated business intelligence (BI) and interactivity into their work.
SAP NetWeaver Portal has been around for several years, and today there are more than 9,000 active deployments of this technology worldwide. It provides easy access to applications via a web browser, eliminating the need for client download and maintenance. Many people find this interface intuitive because they are already familiar with using websites. SAP NetWeaver Portal is probably the best general-purpose UI for enterprises that serve a diverse user population, although a dedicated desktop client such as SAP GUI or SAP NetWeaver Business Client is still faster because of the inherent latency of browser-based applications. SAP NetWeaver Portal is also an excellent choice for delivering applications to external users, such as customers and partners, because the interface is simple, secure, and easy to access via the web.1
UI Opportunities for Occasional Users
Mobile interfaces are ideal for infrequent users, delivering just the right slice of application functionality in a convenient, device-friendly format. SAP offers packaged mobile applications — for sales, workflow, and BI, for example — and Sybase Unwired Platform supports development across many devices. Mobile interfaces are clearly the best fit for on-the-go mobile workers, but they are also great for customer-facing applications and for simple applications that users access frequently or outside normal working hours.
Duet Enterprise benefits customers that use Microsoft SharePoint as a primary working environment and want to provide occasional SAP software users with easy access to key functionality. The solution is designed to simplify the delivery of commonly-used SAP features through the Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft Office interfaces that these workers use every day. Duet Enterprise supports interoperability between Microsoft SharePoint and SAP applications, delivering predefined integration components, single sign-on, user mapping, and templates for rapid development, as well as ready-to-use capabilities.2
SAP Interactive Forms software by Adobe enables users to access and enter SAP data through an Adobe PDF form. No special software is needed, as the solution relies on the standard Adobe Reader software installed on most computers and devices. The forms can be accessed via a browser or emailed to the user and processed offline. And, to prevent user error, the forms support built-in error checking and business logic. Interactive forms are a best practice for non-technical users because most people are familiar with the process of filling out a form, and they are an excellent solution for offline use cases. Custom forms can be created easily because service-oriented integration simplifies development.
UI Opportunities for Unique Users
While SAP offers the above-mentioned packaged extensions for occasional users, customers can also create custom extensions to their SAP environment using the same technologies — SAP NetWeaver Portal, Sybase Unwired Platform, Duet Enterprise, SAP Interactive Forms, as well as Web Dynpro — for the benefit of their unique users. Available for each technology is a developer tool that allows customers to expand on the screens, pages, forms, applications, and integrations that SAP provides as packaged solutions. This approach gives customers more flexibility, reduces the technical complexity of the deployed landscape, and ensures that value can be provided to end users quickly, even when a customer plans to extend the set of services or applications delivered using a particular technology.
Note: SAP recommends using Web Dynpro ABAP, Web Dynpro Java, and the Web Client UI Framework for customization and extension of the core interface. (These are the standard technologies that SAP itself uses for core UI development.) This simplifies the technical environment for UI development, a key element of our UI technology strategy.
As it continues to innovate and develop its UIs, SAP is focusing on simplifying the look and feel of applications, as well as the extensibility of solutions. And these efforts go beyond just making UIs easier to use — a user’s overall experience is also becoming more innovative.
An Intuitive Look and Feel
SAP is taking great strides to harmonize its UIs, offering a new signature look and feel of its application screens.3 This initiative, along with a conscious reduction of the number of technologies used, gives users more control over what they see on their screens and significantly simplifies the development and customization of core interfaces.
Another initiative involves simplifying the extension of SAP solutions to new devices and delivery channels. That is one goal of Project “Gateway,” a technology for the extensibility of core SAP applications. Project “Gateway” provides an easy way to link devices and applications to SAP software. It also provides a common link to SAP solutions for those devices and applications to simplify integration and eliminate one-off, non-repeatable, point-to-point integrations. The value of this technology lies not only in reducing costs, but also in increasing flexibility. Namely, customers can innovate more in their UIs and work in new ways without sacrificing IT control. A key benefit is that developers do not need extensive knowledge of the SAP back end, making Project “Gateway” a top choice for rapid innovation.
Overall User Experience
UI innovation at SAP is not just limited to look and feel or to devices and integration. Simplifying the UI is important, but it is also important to make the broader user experience more innovative. You can see this in solutions such as SAP StreamWork and the new enterprise workspaces in SAP NetWeaver Portal, which give users more control over their experience, as well as collaborative and social capabilities. You can also see it in solutions such as SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, where users have more freedom to explore and act on business data. And it is evident in SAP’s investment in mobility and support for new generations of end-user devices.4
Going forward, we want to continue to give people simple, powerful tools to use to get their work done.
When talking with customers about their UI strategies, I always close my discussion with the same recommendations: Talk to your end users, learn what they want, and listen to their ideas. Organize a productivity workshop or virtual team to share and discuss ways to make people’s work easier. You will be surprised by how much you can learn.
The number of UI options that SAP can support today, and plans to support in the future, gives end users and enterprise IT the opportunity to think well outside of the SAP GUI box.
Andrew Cabanski-Dunning (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Director of Marketing for SAP NetWeaver user interface technologies. Andrew has more than 20 years of experience in enterprise applications and, for the last 10 years, has focused on portal, collaboration, information management, and mobile solutions. Prior to joining SAP, Andrew worked at leading companies such as American Express and Intel.
1 To learn about a customer’s success with SAP NetWeaver Portal, see “How The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company Cultivates Sales Productivity Using SAP NetWeaver Portal and SAP BusinessObjects Solutions” by Davin Wilfrid in the July-September 2010 issue of insiderPROFILES. [back]
2 For a deeper dive into this solution, see “SAP for Business Users: Bringing SAP Applications to Microsoft SharePoint Users with Duet Enterprise” by David Brutman in the January-March 2011 issue of SAPinsider. [back]
3 See “Unveiling SAP’s New Signature Design: Tour Through SAP’s New UI and Its Benefits for Users” by Andrew Cabanski-Dunning and Esther Blankenship in the July-September 2009 issue of SAPinsider. [back]
4 For details on SAP's mobility and device strategy, see "Becoming a Mobile Enterprise: Unwiring Your Business with SAP's Mobile Solutions" by Jack Chawla in the January-March 2011 issue of SAPinsider. [back]