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Software Design with User Interface Patterns: Centered on the User

By Markus Latzina, SAP AG – April 29, 2003

German version

Note: The original version of the article has been published in SAP INFO.

Users who feel "at home" with a software are far more productive than those who have trouble getting to grips with one. The intuitive usability of a solution is therefore extremely important. In the development of mySAP Customer Relationship Management (mySAP CRM) 3.1, SAP focused on the concerns and needs of the users – with the people-centric user interface approach.

One of the basic ideas behind mySAP Customer Relationship Management 3.1 was that it should not just offer a wider range of functions. The most important development goal for this release was usability. SAP's aim was to structure the user interface in a consistent way, so that users can work with it intuitively. This makes it easier for users to learn how to operate the software, and eases the transition from one part of an application to another. In the development of mySAP CRM 3.1, SAP used combined two interlocking elements: User Interface Patterns and a people-centric design process.

 

Combinable Components for the Floorplan

The User Interface Pattern concept is inspired by the finding of design solutions in the architecture. Certain "floorplans" have long proven their worth here. These contain different roomtypes – or layouts – some of which are preconfigured, for example, kitchen, living room, or hallway. The layouts then need to be arranged so that they fit the needs of their inhabitants. Similarly, User Interface Patterns are proven software components that can be reused for the recurring tasks that users carry out. User Interface Patterns are therefore kept intentionally application-independent, and must be adjusted in the design phase to the special requirements of a particular solution area. The aim of the Pattern concept is first to define the individual user interface components and second to determine how these should be combined with each other. This is used to define the "floorplan" of an application.

SAP's Usability Engineering Center (UEC) aims to create the world's most advanced, usable and enjoyable user interface for SAP products. To achieve this aim, the 14 employees of the UEC, located at Sap's headquarters in Walldorf, Germany, work closely with around 120 usability specialists from numerous departments in the Research and Development Labs around the world. Their most important tasks include:

  • Professional support in the implementation of the methods necessary for end user-oriented software development
  • Standardization of SAP user interfaces through User Interface Patterns and Styleguides
  • Consulting for questions relating to usability
  • Assistance in strategically important development projects
  • Creation and coordination of the SAP Group Usability Community
  • Education and training of usability specialists and software engineers

Figure 1: SAP's Usability Engineering Center

An architect must be aware of the needs of the building's occupants in order to allocate the rooms effectively in the building plan. Similarly, SAP's Usability Engineering Center analyzed the tasks of users within a very wide variety of software-based business scenarios. In this analysis, recurring tasks – such as "find object" or "process attribute" – were identified.

The usability specialists modeled the tasks with different levels of detail – first simply in the form of schematic descriptions. They then looked into how the User Interface Patterns needed to be defined as technical design solutions so that they optimally support the individual task levels: from "find object" and "select object" through "display attributes" (details) possibly with "display part attributes" (sub-details), to the individual handling steps such as "enter string." Effective specification of the User Interface Patterns was an important building block on which to restructure and extend the existing business applications in mySAP CRM in order to provide the user with the maximum benefit.

 

Interdisciplinary Development Team Working Hand in Hand

Developing a people-centric user interface demands smooth collaboration between all concerned. In the case of mySAP CRM 3.1, usability specialists from the Usability Engineering Center and the CRM Usability Group came together with experts from Product Management, Application and Pattern Development, respectively, and the SAP Product Design Center. The Product Design Center is responsible for the visual design of user interfaces. The task of the interdisciplinary team was to configure the User Interface Patterns in such a way that they would optimally support the specific user goals and scenarios within mySAP CRM 3.1.

Screen demonstrating User Interface Patterns

Figure 2: User Interface Patterns (click image for larger version)

The usability specialists delivered the process methods for this Pattern-oriented approach acting as "advocates of the users." The process for configuring User Interface Patterns can be described using central questions, which played a key:

  • Which User Interface Patterns are needed to be able to accomplish certain tasks?
  • How should the individual elements of a User Interface Pattern be arranged on the user interface?
  • Which are the most important elements of a given User Interface Pattern, and which other, less important ones, are also required?
  • Which work objects need to be processed?
  • How should user interface screen elements such as fields be grouped together?

The answers are derived from market and user research about the business processes and work practices that were to be supported with the planned software.

In the redesign of mySAP CRM, the first outcome was the modeling of the relevant work tasks from a user perspective. Surprisingly, perhaps, the look of the user interface was not yet decided in this "user environment design" phase. This was not done until a second phase, in which the individual elements of the user environment design, such as "perform search" or "display results," were mapped to defined elements of the User Interface Patterns, such as "search area" or "result area with sorting and filtering in table form." A whole series of questions concerning this mapping, such as "What does the user need first?" or "What is the most important information for an object?" demanded additional usability expertise. This included specific knowledge, for example about the user scenarios, goals, and work environments of typical users of CRM applications.

 

People-Centric User Interface Design – a Model for the Future?

Development of mySAP CRM 3.1 revealed once more that it is absolutely essential to involve users in the process of software design. After all, some questions relating to the configuration of the user interface can only be answered sufficiently if the development teams find out about the work processes and goals of the users and apply this knowledge to the user interface design.

Consequently, Requirements Engineering plays a very important role. It is not enough to draw up feature lists or lists of system functionality. Rather, customer requests and functionality must be consolidated the working requirements of the users. In order to make sure that usability demands are considered, all stakeholders must come together and learn from each other – and ultimately, all will benefit from this added value.

The positive feedback from various directions – be it customers, analysts or trade fair visitors – to the people-centric mySAP CRM 3.1 shows that the effort has paid off. As a result, the combination of User Interface Patterns with a tailored, people-centric design process carried out by an interdisciplinary team, is an attractive, strategic option for SAP and its customers in future development organization – beyond mySAP CRM.

 

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