If you walk around your organization today and ask people for their opinions of SAP software, you’ll likely get a range of responses. Some will say they couldn’t do their jobs without it. Others will say they use it infrequently, they don’t have access to it, or it’s too complicated. Unfortunately, people often view SAP applications as solutions for a small number of power users to control complex processes and activities. But SAP solutions — the software offerings that manage an enterprise’s core processes and mission-critical data — can deliver much more value to many more people.
With the goal of exposing processes and data to a broader range of users, this article addresses the importance of both flexibility — how to deliver information to a wide variety of devices and environments in the way users want to work — and usability — how the user interfaces (UIs) for enterprise software must change to natively fit into those new environments.
Users have numerous choices when engaging with SAP. We can deliver software to the device a person wants to use, for an experience tailored to how he or she wants to work.
More Gadgets Require More Flexibility
Almost every week, it seems, someone raves to the IT department about a new device. They often come to IT in person because, they’ll say, “You have to see this thing yourself to understand how amazing it is!” This enthusiasm and innovation isn’t limited to hand-held devices. Depending on your industry, the gadget du jour could be a touch screen, a sensor, or even an intelligent refrigerator. Anything that can process data and interact with a person or physical resource can be considered a device, and this innovation is proliferating.
For example, consider the “environment as interface” research that some technology companies are undertaking.1 They envision a time in the near future when almost anything could be an interface that uses smart projection and gesture interpretation technology. Your desk or office wall could become your screen, or you could even read the news on the back of the person in front of you on the subway. Now imagine integrating data into that environment. You could look at an orange in a grocery store and immediately know if it’s cheaper next door, because competitive prices are projected onto the orange when you pick it up. Or, you could look at the tires on your car and see how many miles they have been driven or when they were last rotated.
This innovation isn’t too far in the future. Even now, you can use a mobile application to photograph a check and deposit it directly into your bank account from your iPhone. There is enormous potential for devices and interfaces in just this one area of technology.
With the emergence of such innovations, the need for flexibility is paramount. Your software landscape should be flexible and scalable to accommodate system requirement changes, but architecting software for flexibility is especially important in the area of user interfaces. Here, more than anywhere else, there is rapid, continuous change. New smartphones are released all the time. New UI development languages are becoming popular. New commercial applications set the bar higher and change user expectations for every other piece of software users touch. No company developing software today can expect its current UI to be best in class even two or three years down the road.
Note: The recent excitement around mobile devices doesn’t mean that traditional interfaces are going away. Desktops and laptops are devices, too, and they are often the best tools for many types of tasks and activities, especially complex ones. Continuing to invest in traditional devices is still worthwhile, and we can carry forward what we know about making UIs simple and intuitive to any future device or environment.
SAP’s Response to the Need for Flexibility
In response to this reality, SAP is investing in device-ready applications and development and integration technologies to support future devices:
- Sybase Mobile Sales for SAP CRM and Sybase Mobile Workflow for SAP Business Suite, which work on various devices, are excellent examples of device-ready applications that put information at users’ fingertips.
- Sybase Unwired Platform, a mobile enterprise application platform, will ensure that SAP customers are able to adapt and keep up with user demand for applications as the next generation of smart mobile devices rolls out.2 This platform enables organizations to easily build applications to connect business information to mobile devices.
- Project “Gateway,” a technology that opens up the information and services within SAP Business Suite to external consumption, is another important innovation for device support and flexibility. This technology is the foundation for Duet Enterprise software, enabling SAP applications to integrate with Microsoft SharePoint and the Microsoft Office desktop, web, and mobile interfaces.3
The Right Device and the Right Software for Better Usability Results
Regardless of what device an employee uses, simple and intuitive software is now considered part of his or her bill of rights. How can you make a user’s life simpler? Force-fitting an existing interface to a new device is usually possible, but not always advisable. Imagine that you bought a 60-inch, 1080p flat-screen television. Would you use it to play Pac-Man? Probably not. Similarly, it’s not optimal to force-fit every feature of a data entry application, system of record, or other desktop application to new devices such as iPads or PlayBooks.
Instead, think about what your users really need. Many people aren’t experts or power users, but they need insight into their area of the business. People in marketing, operations support, sales, and service tend to require access to a narrow slice of the information within your enterprise applications. Infrequent users may forget how to navigate a complex interface. Mobile workers need interfaces that fit the devices they carry.
When addressing your users’ needs, think simple and intuitive; you don’t need to redesign your entire application portfolio to make a substantial difference (see sidebar). Often, the simplest approach is to find or develop an interface for the tasks that the user performs daily. These types of applications can also complement the technologies and devices that these workers prefer.
SAP’s Response to New Usability Needs
Let’s take a look at three solutions SAP specifically developed with a simple interface in mind for typical users in your enterprise:
- SAP StreamWork is an on-demand solution that supports team collaboration and decision making (see Figure 1).4 You can select colleagues to participate in a decision-making process, find and share necessary information, collaborate around built-in business tools, and connect to up-to-date data from your SAP systems. You can sign up for free access to SAP StreamWork at www.sapstreamwork.com.
||SAP StreamWork's user-friendly design enables teams to collaborate and share information easily and efficiently
- SAP BusinessObjects Explorer allows users to visually explore complex datasets easily to analyze trends and patterns and understand what’s going on in their business (see Figure 2). Using in-memory technology, the application enables you to search mountains of data in seconds. Also, little training is needed to get users up to speed. You can test-drive the solution at https://goexplore.ondemand.com.
||SAP BusinessObjects Explorer enables users to intuitively — and quickly — search, access, and analyze complex data
Most people are familiar with search tools like Google and Bing for personal use, but search capabilities can be a valuable shortcut for enterprise processes too. With SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Search, simply type in what you’re looking for — “Customer XYZ,” for example — and you’ll get a list of search results. The application also displays links showing your actionable options within the retrieved information, such as “Enter a new order for Customer XYZ” or “Schedule a meeting with Customer XYZ.” Clicking on a link brings you directly to the appropriate SAP screen.5
Listen, Try, and Explore
As new devices emerge and more users work in various environments, here are three tips to help you understand how rethinking UIs could be a valuable exercise for your own enterprise.
- Talk to your users. Find out how they would prefer to access SAP transactions and information. Pay attention to how they work (Are they on the road? Do they touch only certain applications?) so you can understand how solutions could best help them. Based on what you’re hearing from your users, look for quick wins that would deliver real value in a short amount of time — wins such as approving workflows from mobile devices. Evaluate the potential benefits (improved productivity, increased use of SAP data, more-informed decision making, and reduced training and support costs, for example) against the cost of deployment and management in order to fully understand your ROI.
- Try on-demand solutions. “Free to try” software can be a great starting point. And with browsers now expanding to so many devices, you can quickly learn where these applications fit and work best for the people you support.6
- Don’t look for a one-size-fits-all solution. Given the range of devices already in use in the organization, it’s unlikely that one “standard” UI will work for everyone. But interfaces that fit into a user’s work environment can increase productivity. For example, if partners can use simple online forms, if customers can track their orders over the web, if sales and support staff have mobile access, and if internal users can make decisions, access reports, and approve requests without leaving their email system, then IT can deliver the productivity that the business needs.
At the end of the day, “work smarter, not harder” should be the mantra for device and interface decisions. It’s a mantra that everyone — from the mail room to the board room — can believe in.
To find more information, visit www.sap.com/solutions/worksmarter.
Andrew Cabanski-Dunning (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Director of Marketing for SAP NetWeaver user interface technologies. Andrew has 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 including American Express and Intel.
1 For example, see www.media.mit.edu/research/groups/fluid-interfaces. [back]
2 For information about SAP’s device-ready applications and development technologies, see “Becoming a Mobile Enterprise” by Jack Chawla in this January-March 2011 issue of SAPinsider. [back]
3 To learn more about Duet Enterprise, see “SAP for Business Users” by David Brutman in this January-March 2011 issue of SAPinsider. [back]
4 For more details about this tool, see “A New Style of Working Generates New Needs — and New Solutions — for Personal Productivity” by Holly Simmons in the October-December 2010 issue of SAPinsider. [back]
5 For a deeper dive into this solution, see “Need Quick Access to SAP Business Suite System Information? Count on SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Search for Fast Answers” by Karsten Hohage in the October-December 2008 issue of SAPinsider. [back]
6 For detailed coverage of SAP’s on-demand solution portfolio, please see the feature stories in the October-December 2010 issue of SAPinsider. [back]