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The Art and Science of Usability

By , SAP AG, User Experience – June 23, 2006

German Version • This article has originally been published in SAP World, June 2006

A year ago, many of the usability and user interface design-related resources at SAP were reorganized under Dan Rosenberg. His revamped, centralized SAP group now focuses on an enhanced user-centered design process, a leitmotif expressed in the group’s new name: “User Experience.” Achieving and delivering this positive user experience is part science, part art, and a good deal of engineering.

Dan RosenbergNo matter what usability dimension they are working on, Dan Rosenberg, senior vice president, Product User Experience and his team are dedicated to delivering what SAP customers want. How many deals does SAP win or lose to competitors because of interface quality? How can we increase customer satisfaction and reduce the cost of ownership? They ask these questions daily. Dan, who joined SAP from Oracle where he was vice president for user interface (UI) design, is convinced that what is best for SAP customers is also best for business: Reduced cost of ownership means additional budget that can be invested in new SAP products, which in turn enhances both the corporate bottom line, and the customers’ productivity.

Striving for high-quality user interface design is not new to SAP. This multi-national group is not re-inventing the wheel but aligning the newly organized teams to stir the right mix of art and science that will deliver a truly satisfying user experience. The guiding principle is winning every user in the product life cycle – from the CIO making the buying decision to the IT engineer installing the software to the material requirements planner in a loud and busy warehouse.

 

Engineering

To reach the target, user experience teams with various tasks and roles – located in the SAP Labs in Germany, the United States, Israel, Bulgaria, and India – have to work closely together.

Teams with engineering expertise in the design of core UI technologies and frameworks focus, in collaboration with the SAP NetWeaver organization, on the UI core code and development tools. This team is primarily directed at creating SAP’s UI standards. At the same time, specialized UI design teams with deep knowledge in the individual applications of mySAP Business Suite focus on specifics within the suite.

An infrastructure team sees to crossfunctional activities. It coordinates SAP internal and external communication on UI topics and serves as a platform for sharing best practices by hosting the SAP Design Guild Web site and the SAP UI Gallery. It organizes user tests to bring in user feedback from the first prototype through to complete software modules. And it provides support for prototyping tools and training for colleagues to stay up-to-date on new methods.

 

Art

The user experience visual design team in Walldorf also plays a significant role in forming the user experience. In both HTML and GUI incarnations, they define how the SAP brand appears on the screen through style sheets that set visual selections for layout, color, and fonts.

At the next level of detail, they provide the design for specific controls. And at the finest granularity, they provide icons and other visual elements that concisely express product functionality through a visual grammar of actions and objects. Their challenge remains to visually portray inspiring products while never losing sight of timeless, classic design.

 

Science

How can SAP consistently ensure that new SAP products are best of breed throughout the vast product range? The newly established user centered design (UCD) process describes the proven scientific approach required for user experience excellence.

Usability LabYears of research have shown that only those who really know user needs and can quantifiably measure their performance can turn user requirements into good products. User Experience has been piloting an enhanced UCD process since January 2006. Its goal is to incorporate users as early and as often as possible into the software development process, to measure their needs, skills, and work habits, and to translate these into accurate use cases, requirements, and designs that fulfill these needs.

While UCD can be considered a philosophy, it is not mere theory: It provides solution managers, software developers, and user interface designers with a set of methods they can use – from the early stages of software development on – to ensure that future products will meet user requirements. As a result of the integration of UCD into the product innovation life cycle (PIL), the focus is on user orientation throughout the development process.

UCD clearly defines the responsibilities of all those involved in each phase and facilitates management support. The final scientific dimension is clinical measurement of user performance, which enables both management and designers to know when the product is getting better. Usability labs can measure efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction by statistically reliable means. This type of data also allows comparison with competitive products as well as industry standards and norms.

Through a combination of UCD processes and the application of a little art and a lot of science, the revamped User Experience team, in collaboration with both solution management and development, will be delivering continuous improvement in this important area for SAP for years to come. Every improvement in the area of user experience provides a win/win situation for the company, the employees, and the customers, with reductions in cost and increases in productivity.

 

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