Matthias Vering on Usability and User Productivity – More Than Just a Pretty Interface

By Johannes Gillar, SAP INFO, SAP AG – November 19, 2004

German Version • This article has also been published in SAP INFO 122

If you need a computer at work, you want it to be simple to use. You want more than just a pretty interface. Matthias Vering, Vice President, User Productivity at SAP, tells SAP INFO how fresh solution designs help SAP customers' employees work more productively.

SAP INFO: Everyone is talking about usability. What makes it so important for software solutions?

Matthias Vering: Usability is so important because information technology has moved into everybody's day-to-day world. There was a time when IT was made by specialists for specialists – now we are all IT users, even if some of us are only occasional users. IT penetration of the everyday world – or, from SAP's perspective, penetration of the everyday business world – is now very pervasive. How easy a solution is to use has become a key issue, because it no longer chiefly impacts specialists, but regular employees who need the software to do their jobs properly.

SAP INFO: Does usability mean a friendlier user interface, or is there more to it than that?

Vering: There's much more to usability than that. Even the way we use the word has changed over time. In the old paradigm, it was part of quality assurance at the end of the development cycle: "Is the user interface OK?" Today, we develop the user interface – the UI – according to the user-centered design rule. That means the design is no longer dictated by the technical functions offered by the software but by the user we have in mind and what he or she is trying to get done. The solution we develop won't work unless that user is foremost in our mind from the outset. Later, when real users work with the solution, we can measure whether they are in fact working more productively – whether we have achieved our goal.

SAP INFO: How exactly do you measure whether a newly designed UI is more productive to work with?

Vering: Well, we could just ask people how they like the software, but that isn't what we mean by measuring user productivity. It isn't even a matter of going to the lab and recording mouse movements or people's eye movements. We are interested in how efficiently people work with the solution, and there are three things we can measure.

One is the time to complete a task: The shorter it is, the better the productivity score. The second parameter is the time taken for the entire process as a collaborative scenario, which involves tasks done by multiple employees. Here again, the shorter the time, the greater the productivity. The third measurable is how long beginners take to become experts. If they can get there quickly, they are on top of the system and they'll be relatively confident tackling new tasks using applications they haven't met before.

SAP INFO: It used to be said that SAP was somewhat unfriendly software and difficult to use. Things have improved since EnjoySAP – but how, precisely?

Vering: There were four aspects that EnjoySAP first addressed and that SAP has been steadily improving ever since. Number one was the development process. Now – and this is new – our starting point is the person who will use the solution. When we develop something from scratch, we first design the user interface. We ask users to test it with us, and we optimize it before we write a line of code. We call this the UI First process.

Second was advanced architecture: portals and work centers. These days, applications do not stand alone; they interact with other solutions in a given context. A business portal collects all of the applications and information an employee needs in a defined context and puts them together in one control center or work center.

The third consideration was what we know as UI building blocks. By always using the same building block in the user interface to handle the same kind of interaction, we make it much easier for people to learn and master our system.

And the fourth aspect was good visual design. The visual design is the first thing you notice, but it isn't an end in itself. It stands or falls with all of the other considerations. In fact, the last thing anyone wants is a pretty interface that is hard to work with. We go for interfaces that help people work as accurately and as rapidly as possible – and look great.

SAP INFO: Design is often a matter of taste. What pleases the developer is not always what pleases the user. By no means every design study comes up with a practical design. How does SAP make sure its user interfaces are the way customers really need them?

Vering: Developers can only develop a friendly solution if they know how people will want to use it. So developers have to get out there into the companies and find out what the employees are doing and how they do it. That is user-centered design, and at SAP we deploy a whole set of proven methods to make it work. One cornerstone of the UI First approach is getting real users on board at the earliest possible stage.

Another feature of UI First is our online UI gallery. The prototype user interfaces in the gallery are the first points for customer feedback. We show them to customers to verify that we understand the tasks correctly and to check that the proposed solution really does make it easier to do them. You'd be surprised how often we have to go back before we properly understand what the workers do and identify the solution that best drives productivity. The first try is never right. After all, we aren't painting works of art, we're engineering a real working environment for real people.

The gallery approach has the great advantage that before we write any business-content programs we can go to customers with user interface concepts, clickable applications. SAP tried this out on the self-services before we wrote them. Our development cycle was quicker than usual, and the productivity boost our customers noticed got rave reviews.

SAP INFO: Aside from usability, the other aspect we have been hearing a lot about is accessibility. Where does this fit in?

Vering: We think accessibility is very important, because IT is full of opportunities for people who have a disability. Especially – but not only – if you use a screen reader, a special keyboard, or other adaptations, you will find the most accessible solutions tend to be the ones that are also easy for people without disabilities to use.

SAP INFO: And what is the link between usability and user productivity?

Vering: I see user productivity as the new touchstone. What we're doing is not an end in itself: The solutions we make are meant to be tools to help employees do their work as quickly and efficiently as possible. We say, people who use our solutions are entitled to expect three 'E's: effectiveness, efficiency, and experience. A solution is effective if it's easy to find what you need. It is efficient if you can get your task done quickly. And it's a good experience if it's fun to work with.

SAP INFO: Is that related to changing patterns of work – to the fact that today many people are occasional rather than full-time users?

Vering: Yes. I can think of three ways that happens. More automation reduces manual intervention in processes – a great way to cut process costs. Second, self-services, which enable people to do tasks in the system without going through (and waiting for) a "middle man," replace complex centralized processes with rapid local ones. The third is the professional user/occasional user trend. As we said earlier, software used to be made by specialists for specialists, but this is very much less the case now that information technology permeates the entire world of business.

I think self-services and automation will be increasingly important factors in the future, and I don't think the computers that specialists work at will stay as they are forever. Specialists of the future will expect a work center to show them at a glance everything that requires their attention, so they can respond at once. A typical example of a self-service: A sales manager needs to check the credit limit for an order. The old way was to ask someone at headquarters, who would use a specialist system transaction to find out before responding to the sales manager. Today, the sales manager expects a credit-limit button on the screen where you process the order from the customer, which he or she can use to run that check. That accelerates the process and cuts costs – just what user productivity is all about.

SAP INFO: User productivity also affects total cost of ownership. Do you know of companies that have benefited in this way?

Vering: That kind of research has been done on self-services and automation, the spotlight fields of the future. The results show how soon the investment pays off and how much companies save. It is harder to measure the effect in the knowledge-work field. But if you look at processes rather than the individual employee, you see the contributions that self-services, automation, and knowledge workers make together. On that basis, a new purchasing process using supplier relationship management can be much less expensive. Surveys on self-service scenarios show amortization over eight to 12 months and savings of 65 percent or more. That isn't just because of the UI, but also because of the business solution that the company gets with the software application. "Does IT matter?" In this context it certainly does!

SAP INFO: Another side to usability is computers learning to understand natural spoken language. How is the research coming along on this and what is SAP doing about it?

Vering: We have reached the stage where computers can recognize a restricted vocabulary in a low-noise environment. For example, there are browsers you can operate with spoken commands. There is a lot of potential in audio portals: A user calls a portal; the portal puts a question to the user and analyzes the response to "decide" what information to present to the user. SAP is currently doing voice-enabled portal (VEP) research.

SAP INFO: Some SAP solutions, including mySAP Enterprise Resource Planning (mySAP ERP), mySAP Customer Relationship Management (mySAP CRM), and Human Capital Management, already use new-design-control elements. What is SAP's schedule for usability or UI First as far as other solutions?

Vering: UI First is the standard process for new SAP solutions. The schedule envisions 17 important mySAP ERP core roles in 2005 designed to the new paradigm. Our Enterprise Services Architecture (ESA) implementation plan will lead to a new user interface for key scenarios over the next four years. By then we want to have implemented a new UI concept for the core processes.

SAP INFO: SAP has a lot of different usability work going on: Usability Net, User Productivity Online, the Usability Engineering Center, the SAP Design Guild all spring to mind. Are you sure the company isn't dissipating its energy somewhat?

Vering: The recent reorganization of our development areas brought together, under the umbrella of the Application Platform & Architecture (AP&A) group, all of the different sections that were scattered across our technology group and various application groups. Our user-productivity section is now part of AP&A and includes visual design, the navigation concept, UI design itself, and also the Accessibility Center (ACC). If we want all of our developers and user interface designers to march in the same direction, they all need the same clear map and reliable, up-to-date intelligence and orders. That's why we are investing so heavily in knowledge management.

The SAP Design Guild is, if you will, where we meet the world outside, while our knowledge marketplace is the floor of our internal exchange. We can tell this is the right strategy from the number of times our employees visit the marketplace. But knowledge management is only a means to an end, a tool that helps us achieve our common purpose: building and selling software that helps our customers and their employees work efficiently.


Matthias Vering talked to Johannes Gillar


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