SAP hopes to make users’ work easier with better UI designs

By taking a page from companies like Apple and Amazon, SAP looks to make its UI designs more intuitive to more users.

Users of Business ByDesign -- or any of SAP's on-demand applications for that matter -- may feel a vague sense of familiarity, with the last time they bought off of Amazon, used iTunes or even logged onto Facebook.

That’s on purpose, according to SAP.

After hearing for years that the user interfaces (UIs) within their enterprise suite applications were confusing and difficult to navigate, SAP says it's now focused on designing products that mirror popular consumer applications and websites. Apple has had a major influence on users’ expectations, as has mobile computing. That’s because people no longer distinguish between the applications they use at work and those they use in their personal lives, according to Dan Rosenberg, senior vice president of user experience at SAP.

 “We know what the retail quality user experience expectations are,” he said, noting that SAP compares the look and feel of its enterprise applications to Web 2.0 counterparts and not to other equivalent enterprise applications made by its competitors.

The expectation of even a professional buyer involved in procurement, for example, is “‘Hey, I can use Amazon.com. I like it a lot. Why don’t you meet that expectation?’” Rosenberg said.

The UI challenges

There are downsides to those expectations, Rosenberg said. For one, popular e-commerce sites in general are designed to keep customers logged on for as long as possible so they can sell you additional products. That would annoy enterprise application users who want to get on and do their work as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that one aspect of their business model isn’t applicable.

SAP’s user interface designers are also competing against “banner blindness,” the phenomenon of users getting so accustomed to ignoring banner advertisements located in one part of the browser that they don’t even look at that part of the screen anymore.

 The problem is that SAP doesn’t have any advertising in those products. “We want to use that space for content,” Rosenberg said. The challenge is designing in a way that gets people to ignore that learned behavior, he added.  

SAP is succeeding in its efforts to make its user interface easier to navigate, at least when it comes to Business ByDesign, according to Caldwell Velnambi, CEO of ERP Logic Inc., an enterprise application consulting firm and SAP partner.

When new employees who’ve never used the application join his company, they’re able to use the application on the second day, Velnambi said.

“You don’t need to do a lot of due diligence,” he said. “It’s pretty self-explanatory.” His one complaint about the application was that it’s not as customizable as it could be.

Starting from scratch

Rainer Zinow, senior vice president of Business ByDesign at SAP, said SAP tried to start fresh when designing the interface of the on-demand application and did not build off of the Business Suite UI since it had such a reputation for being confusing and difficult to use.

One of Business ByDesign’s latest design changes includes a report structure similar to Apple iTunes in that users can scroll through smaller images of the documents, in addition to viewing them in list form.  “I can browse through them in a more intuitive way,” said Zinow.

Although nobody asked for it, it was something that the design team felt was required for the application to stay current, he said. “There wasn’t a single customer who said, ‘Can you give me an iTunes look and feel for reports?’ That was really our design team that came back and said, ‘If we observe what is happening in the world of the Apple user interface, then these are the new ways to navigate.’”

“There’s no grace”

Not surprisingly, mobile computing has had a major influence on UI designs, Rosenberg said. It’s also the one area where combining influences of professional and personal user experiences and expectations most overlap, he said.

The trick for SAP, is to make its mobile applications -- like those for the iPhone and the iPad -- look similar to all the others out there, with only minimal design touches that are unique to SAP, including what color is used.

The point is to blend in, said Rosenberg. “When you do a really good job on mobile, nobody notices. Expectations are really high. And if you do anything that’s subpar on mobile, you get slammed immediately. There’s no grace.”

In the mobile world, it’s also important to note that Apple, which everyone is looking to emulate, is far ahead of its mobile competitors. “The Apple stuff is at a level of finesse and pixel-polish that’s museum quality. But if you go to the BlackBerry, you don’t see that,” he said.

No one UI design standard anymore

SAP’s user interface designs now come from a variety of different sources -- including Microsoft, with its Silverlight application -- all of which are converging together, Zinow said.

 “We as a company now have the opportunity to say, ‘Come on, we are not bound to one specific style guide, like we were with R3,’” he said, referring to SAP’s original enterprise suite.

“The original style guide for the SAP R3 user interface was IBM’s SAA/CUA [Systems Application Architecture/Common User Access] and we did stick to that standard,” he said. “In today’s world, there is no standard which everybody looks and says, ‘this is the way our user interface has to look.’”

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