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What's So Hard About Enterprise UX? ERP Software Revisited

By Jon Innes

During the last twenty years, enterprise resource planning (ERP) software has become a standard fixture of the daily work environment of many professionals who work in large companies. While there are other types of “enterprise” software, this article will focus on ERP systems, a $6 billion a year industry. Many Fortune 1,000 companies have deployed ERP systems to support all types of transaction-oriented work, from accounting to sales functions. Smaller companies are now adopting this technology due to the efficiencies of the Software as a Service (SaaS) model that make it more affordable. This means that increasingly, workers spend their days sitting at keyboards and staring at monitors feeding data into some variant of an ERP system.

ERP’s Influence
Today’s ERP systems are extremely complex. One could argue they act as the central nervous system in our modern economy. Global multinationals are dependent on them. Without ERP, managers of corporate workers who are increasingly spread across the globe would be unable to coordinate the activities that are responsible for billions of dollars of commerce.

The spread of the Internet has enabled transactions between these systems, allowing the tentacles of these monster programs to reach into even the smallest companies and the daily lives of consumers. It is ERP systems that ultimately capture the transactions initiated by consumers as they click on e-commerce web pages, Kindles, iPhones, and the pervasive point-of-sale systems that have replaced cash registers.

Consider what it must be like to work day-after-day in front of a screen produced by an ERP vendor that occasionally spits out incomprehensible errors, or worse yet, loses your work. It’s definitely not an experience comparable to using an iPhone. Enlightened members of the analyst community have long known this, but the IT industry is finally maturing to the point where key stakeholders (not users) are starting to take notice.

Why is This so Hard?
As professionals, we know that framing the design problem—getting a shared vision of the design goals and constraints with all the project stakeholders, including the users—is one of the most important aspects of user-centered design. This is where designing enterprise software becomes more complex than designing consumer software.

Historically, one of the key challenges in enterprise software has been the number of stakeholders involved and their conflicting agendas. This is the major barrier to improving the usability of ERP systems. It is not the UX professionals involved, or the lack of resources, but the nature of the problem itself. Let’s review the different stakeholders for ERP systems:

Individual Users
The individual users are the accountants, call center representatives, sales personnel, and countless others who record transaction-oriented data into ERP systems. In cases of self-service-oriented purchasing or expense reporting software, it could include anyone who is required to do those tasks in the company, not just the individuals in the purchasing or procurement functions. Unlike consumer software end users, they don’t have a say in purchase of ERP systems. They also don’t have a way of providing feedback to the vendors about user experience problems.

Functional Managers
The functional managers on the team perform specialized functions in the organization. Examples include managers of sales divisions and customer support organizations. It’s important to consider managers’ goals for ERP systems during design, such as providing consistent ways of combining sales forecasts or tracking support issues. This extends beyond what the individuals do with the UI to how that work is coordinated and measured. Functional managers occasionally have limited input into purchase decisions at companies. Unfortunately they almost never have a direct line of communication with vendors to discuss product enhancements.

Enterprise Executives
As the “E” in ERP implies, the systems are designed to serve enterprises and their executive management. Examples include aligning sales predictions with manufacturing plans or the related staffing and support budgets. ERP systems are designed to meet the needs of the executives who are the ultimate customers and decision makers regarding ERP purchasing. They have significant influence on ERP vendors, but typically this is channeled through individuals with IT responsibility, such as the CIO or CTO. One problem is that the enterprise executives rarely, if ever, actually use ERP systems. So while they hold the purse strings, letting executives select an ERP system is much like having your grandmother select your clothes for you.

Other Stakeholders
The other stakeholders include customers, business partners, and analysts that “guide” the customers of ERP systems. Since most of today’s ERP systems incorporate what is known as business-to-business (B2B) and business to customer (B2C) functionality, this also needs to be considered. Most modern ERP systems are used by both customers and business partners. For example, Amazon can tell you when your shipment will arrive, and how much shipping will cost using ERP. Ecosystem members have limited-to-no input in ERP purchase decisions. Analysts can significantly influence the decision makers, but rarely focus on user experience aspects of ERP.

Other Factors
Another factor contributing to poor ERP user experience is sheer complexity. ERP suites, which contain a broad range of functions, might have tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands), of pages or screens. Similar to the large corporations they serve, ERP systems are typically composed of loosely coupled functionally specialized modules. These specialized modules are only designed to be used in a part of a company, such as the call center, accounting, or human resources department.

As one would expect, the design of these modules reflect the philosophies of modern corporations. As such, ERP systems inherit both the strengths and weaknesses of this way of conducting business. One key weakness in both corporations and ERP suites is that their modularity makes them resistant to change.

ERP is software for corporations, designed by corporations. While this might sound like a good thing, consider that most large corporations suffer from poor cross-functional communications. This presents many barriers to good design.

User-centered design depends on regular, rich interaction with users throughout the development process. Better feedback loops result in better designs. Unfortunately, insufficient feedback from the user (note the use of “user” and not “customer”) is the norm in enterprise software today. Frequent interaction with users required for design iterations are rare compared to that in more consumer-oriented companies. The iterative design process for a package of soap at Proctor and Gamble is subject to much more user feedback than most ERP modules.

The ERP ecosystem is fertile ground for what former Microsoft COO Robert J. Herbold calls “the fiefdom syndrome.” Many players in the ecosystem are solving for their own short-term interests. Here are some of the classic maladaptive behaviors:

Recognizing Enterprise Software Is Different
Jeff Conklin recently wrote an article in Rotman Magazine advocating a “design approach” to solve so called “wicked problems.” Wicked problems:

This sounds a lot like enterprise software to most of us who have worked on it.

What can we do?
We need to recognize that designing usable enterprise software is different. In the past, most enterprise companies have been attempting to apply methods derived from consumer product design without much modification. Just testing representative individual users in a usability lab is not sufficient.

As Jakob Nielsen mentioned in his November 2005 Alertbox newsletter column (www.useit.com/alertbox) “Enterprise Usability,” there are at actually three dimensions to cover:

Standard lab testing misses group- and enterprise-level usability issues, as well as the impact of test data versus real data in these studies. User experience professionals working on ERP systems need to explore methods that overcome these problems.

Some Promising Directions
The Common Industry Format (CIF) effort was a significant step forward. It started a dialog among vendors and enterprises. However, almost ten years after it was proposed, most IT organizations and industry analysts remain largely ignorant about user research methods, including summative testing. According to the Standish Group, only 40 percent of IT organizations measure the success of the systems they deploy. ERP customers should be asking for CIF data, and analysts should be publishing reports discussing CIF study findings. Customers should be asking why vendors have not sent someone out to discuss studies measuring the usability of the latest updates to their ERP systems. Industry analysts should start asking about this kind of data, rather than acting as extensions of ERP marketing departments to push further investments in IT.

Another step in the right direction, vendors have started focusing more on ethnographic studies of enterprises that specifically focus on workgroup and enterprise level factors in addition to end-users. Studies of this type take time and planning, but they provide valuable data for designing ERP systems. Even more important than any particular design improvements identified in these studies is the shared context they help develop among stakeholders. Progress is being made, but until everyone in the ERP ecosystem is familiar and supportive of this type of work, there remains significant room for improvement. Success looks something like this: CIOs start asking vendors why they haven’t seen someone studying ERP use at their company, and asking about the findings of those studies.

The most promising trend is the increasing use of customer advisory programs. Such efforts address the lack of alignment among the stakeholders in the enterprise ecosystem, a key barrier to improving designs. Any increase in dialog will help create shared vision of both the problem and how to make progress. While these efforts are often restricted to a small vocal set of customers, it is certainly a step in the right direction. Ideally these programs would be run as working groups, focusing on resolving issues identified by other methods including, but not limited to, low user satisfaction scores, low scores on CIF defined measures of deployed ERP systems, and usage data collected from large numbers of customers.

What can usability professionals—many of whom work in customer and vendor organizations—do to make a difference? One way to help would be to prioritize the discussion of enterprise user experience within our profession. We can also highlight the efforts of vendors as well as user experience professionals who work for forward-thinking ERP customers.

Usability professionals might also consider starting an outreach program targeting executives who make IT purchasing decisions with the goal of educating them in regards to the impact of poor usability on worker satisfaction, organizational efficiency, and more importantly, corporate profit margins. If we can convince them that user experience knowledge can impact their business, they will listen.UX

Jon Innes is a consultant who helps companies of all shapes and sizes understand and figure out how to improve the user experience. Prior to becoming an independent consultant, he led user experience teams at SAP and Siebel. He has also worked on consumer products for companies like Intuit and Symantec. Jon is a member of UPA, HFES, and ACM CHI with a graduate degree in human factors psychology from New Mexico State. Jon lives in San Francisco, but has been sighted peering over the shoulders of computer users at companies all over the world.

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This article was originally printed in User Experience Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 1, 2010.

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