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ENTERPRISE APPLICATIONS: END USER AS AN AFTERTHOUGHT
The sad truth is, when enterprise applications were being built in the 1990s, the last thing the vendors worried about was the user experience. To start with, most enterprise applications were written to automate an existing manual pro-cess. Also, in those days, business applications led the way for the few consumer
ap-plications being built, not the other way around.
As more and more consumer applications sprouted on the Internet, developers started pushing the envelope on the usability front. Product managers and architects started asking the key question—why can’t I have the same user experience in a browser-based application that I can have on a desktop application? The frameworks were defined, tools were built—and the era of the easy-to-use browser-based application was born. It was now time for enterprise applications to take inspiration from their consumer counterparts! Demographics also play a major role. As younger generations enter the workforce, they are expecting the same intuitive user experience in the four walls of an enterprise ap-plication as they are used to as consumers with apap-plications like Facebook, Twitter, and Mint, to name a few.
USABILITY & GOOD DESIGN
Before we dive into the usability aspects of an enterprise application, let’s define usability. Jakob Nielsen defines it as, “a
quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use.”1
There are volumes of work dedicated to usability as it applies to the user interface. Rather than rehashing those prin-ciples, in this paper we will focus on good usability as a manifestation of good overall design. A good design foundation is very relevant to the complexity of an enterprise application.
One of the earliest and most influential pioneers in the field of good design is Dieter Rams2. The 10 principles of good
de-sign, laid out by Rams, have continued to influence the work of master designers of today, including Jonathan Ive at Apple.
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In the following section, we will see that for an enterprise application to be considered highly usable, we should ensure that it is based on good design as it gets manifested through good user interface design, good underlying information architecture, and a robust set of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces).
7 QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT USABILITY IN ENTERPRISE APPLICATIONS
The simple truth is – ease of use is hard to do. Prospects evaluating enterprise applications that are to be used by busi-ness users need to look “under the hood” to determine whether the vendor’s claim for ease of use holds water. Here are 7 key questions the evaluators of enterprise cloud applications should be looking at while evaluating the usability of an application:
Question #1: Are These “Re-skinned” versions of Old User Interfaces?
We all know that putting lipstick on a pig does not make it pretty! Trying to “re-purpose” old user interfaces with some “fresh coat of paint” does not solve the usability problem either.
Unfortunately, many enterprise software vendors are claiming victory the user experience as they struggle to move from an on-premise or hosted deployment to a cloud deployment model.
The legacy applications were written with older technologies and do not lend themselves well to leverage newer web 2.0 technologies. Pure Cloud applications, on the other hand, have been written ground up with new technologies and are inherently capable to providing user experience similar to those found in the consumer applications.
Question #2: How Configurable and Extensible are the APIs?
It’s easy for enterprise cloud application vendors to forget about/pay little attention to the usability needs of classes of users other than the “business users” – e.g., that of the administrators and the developers doing integration work. Most enterprises, however, have unique business needs. A base application needs to be configured to accommodate the unique business needs of an enterprise.
In traditional, on-premise, enterprise applications, configurability often gets short shrift. Instead, it is generally assumed that customers will hire consultants to customize the code, or at the very least, delegate configuration to their own inter-nal IT departments. This passing of the buck produces a lot of flexibility, but at great cost. Maintainability suffers, while implementation, support, and upgrade costs expand.
At Coupa, on the other hand, we don’t pass the buck—we focus on 3 things:
• Building best practices into the software. We’re prescriptive and not ashamed of it, because our collective experience has taught us that re-implementing the same flawed processes in new software doesn’t magically fix them.
• Making configuration around those practices powerful and easy. We attempt to balance our opinionated stance by making it straightforward for business analysts and procurement professionals to extend, configure, and reconfigure their system without waiting for or hiring anyone else.
• Making it easy to get your data into and out of the system. No one system can be the single source of truth for everything. To that end, we provide an extensive and modern REST-based API layer that enforces the same business rules as the rest of the application, automatically includes your own custom fields, and behaves consistently across different business objects. We also pre-integrate with popular ERP back-ends, support lega-cy integration mechanisms such as flat files and EDI, and ensure that integration testing is part of any upgrade.
Question #3: Does the Interaction design allow for high degree of productivity?
Enterprise applications typically have a lot of “workflows” to support business processes. These workflows vary in com-plexity – some are simple while others can be fairly complex.
For example, how many screens does the user have to go through to approve a requisition? How much do they need to go through simply to see if they have anything needing their attention? Do they need to select a role or some other more arcane context, or remember what menus to drill into? Do they need to go to a week of training before they’re allowed to log in for the first time?
At Coupa, we believe that the software should conform to what the user would naturally expect as much as possible, and that as much as possible, the user should be insulated from the abstractions that are part of any software that models company structure. Just as we don’t rely on the crutch of assumed customization, we also work hard to make training unnecessary.
After logging in, how many clicks does it take to approve a requisition or an expense report? One. How many does it take
to create an invoice from an issued purchase order? Two. How about making sure that you’ll always get a say in any
requisition that might push you over budget? Five. We don’t like tedium, and don’t want to subject you to it, either.
Question #4: How robust is the underlying Information Architecture?
At first look, data model might sound like something furthest away from usability. However, unified information architecture is the bedrock on which good usability rests. Having the right conceptual, logical, and physical data model not only help build a robust repository of information, it also has the positive influence on the information architecture manifested in the user interface.
Let’s take the example of approaches to information architecture taken by two companies Company A and Company B. Company A builds their capabilities by buying other companies and trying to “integrate” them. Company B, on the other hand, builds the capabilities “organically”.
The organically developed data model of company B will have a distinct advantage over the patchwork data model put together by Company A. Company B will have better control over the design, and be able to better leverage Rams’ prin-ciples of “good design is long lasting” and that it, “is thorough to the last detail.”
The introduction of sub-line accounting at Coupa is a good example of how a unified, organically developed, and fully normalized data model enables clean feature progression. Essentially sub-line accounting is a way of allocating the costs of a single item or expense across multiple accounts, often on a percentage basis. While a must-have feature for some businesses, for most, it is more trouble than it’s worth. Therefore, we deferred adding it until we felt we could do it prop-erly: transparently, and consistently. Because our way of modeling accounts was consistent across requisitions, purchase orders, invoices, expense reports, budgets, receipts, etc., we were able to add optional accounting allocations to all the necessary documents in a consistent way within a single 3 month release cycle, and still have all the associated func-tionality work consistently (including consistent data security for all users with no upgrade necessary.)
Question #5: Is the Application Accessible from Anywhere on Any Mobile Device?
People are spending more time on their mobile phones than ever before. In fact, it is projected that by 2013, mobile
Internet usage will overtake desktop Internet usage3. As the workforce becomes more untethered to their desks, it is ever
more important for an application to weave into a user’s daily life by being accessible anywhere, anytime, and on any mobile device.
Coupa Mobile Approver is a good example of mobility support for an e-Procurement application.
A Coupa user can manage budgets and control spend no matter where she is. She can safely and securely access her notifications and requisitions right from her iPhone, work on any To Do items from her inbox, or approve or reject requisi-tions with a single tap, to list just a few of the capabilities.
Question #6: Is “Less is More” for the Design?
Another way of saying this is, easy things should be easy and obvious, and difficult things should be possible. We also refer to this as the progressive disclosure of complexity. “Good usability includes ideas like progressive disclosure where you show a small number of features to the less experienced user to lower the hurdle of getting started and yet have a
larger number of features available for the expert to call up”.4
The legacy applications were developed with a manufacturing centric business model in mind. A manufacturing-centric model has a lot of inherent complexity, and this complexity shows up in their user interfaces. For example, if a company needs to deal with only one chart of accounts, and a single currency, the application must make it very easy for the user to deal with this simple case. The complexity of multiple charts of accounts and multiple currencies should be hidden from these types of users.
Question 7: How rapid is the innovation cycle of the application?
Legacy enterprise software vendors typically measure their release cycles in years. With that kind of release cycle it’s extremely hard for these vendors to incorporate customer feedback related to usability in a reasonable timeframe. On top of that, upgrading to a new version is typically a messy and expensive affair for the users. Pure cloud providers have a distinct advantage over the legacy enterprise application vendors. For example, major software updates from Coupa are available 4 times a year. With fewer technology platforms to manage (such as a legacy enterprise application vendor having to maintain one codeline for customers that use Oracle as their backend database, and another for customers who use IBM DB2 as their backend database), Coupa is able to provide more feature-rich software with each release, including key usability enhancement requests in a timely fashion.
Enterprise application users have long tolerated the unpleasant and productivity-dragging user experience of these ap-plications. As users become familiar with easy-to-use Internet based applications as a consumer, they are demanding similar user experiences from enterprise applications. For companies evaluating enterprise cloud applications, it is very important to look beyond the user interfaces of these applications. Applications need to provide the right configurability to accommodate unique business needs, extensible and comprehensive APIs to help partners, and delightful user experi-ence through excellent user interface design.
1. Nielsen, Jakob. “Usability 101: Introduction to Usability.”
2. Dieter Rams / Celebrating 25 years of design. Design Museum.
3. Gartner report on mobile internet usage
4. Nielsen, Jakob. “Sitepoint interview.”