SAP turns to its partners for help improving its UIs

Acknowledging that it’s too much work for them to take on alone, SAP is counting on its partners to help modify its user interfaces.

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In the face of enduring criticism over its user interface (UI), SAP has quietly gone about making its applications easier for customers to use. Now more than ever, SAP’s strategy is to use its network of partners and vendors to help make that happen.

“The field is so broad, and the range of applications and users and industries is so broad, that a one-size-fits-all strategy is not available,” said Dan Rosenberg, senior vice president of user experience at SAP.

The strategy, he said, is to let users operate in the environment they’re most comfortable working in, even if it’s not SAP.

“If you’re in Microsoft Outlook and we can push SAP content into it, [wouldn't] you prefer that?” Rosenberg asked.

SAP wants to give customers a way to access content in a more palatable fashion. For example, the newly launched Duet Enterprise software is designed to give users access to SAP applications through Microsoft SharePoint 2010.

Third-party UI aggregators
Besides Microsoft, SAP has turned to other partners, such as OpenSpan, to help condense SAP processes into as few as screens and fields as possible through the use of wizards or the creation of new UIs specific to that task. Data that would typically need to be re-entered in different screens or applications is duplicated and pushed into the relevant places within the SAP, or non-SAP, application.

The OpenSpan application improves upon the SAP UI, according to the company’s CEO Eric Musser, because it simplifies complex software such as SAP ERP down to specific roles and processes.

“We improve upon it, because we make it very task-specific, for that particular user, for that function,” he said.

The difference between OpenSpan and some of SAP’s newest UIs, like CRM 7.0, which is also based on roles and processes, is that OpenSpan works with both new and older SAP technology, as well as with non-SAP applications, Musser said.

“SAP capabilities are more application-centric and prebuilt,” he added. “If they have the consolidated view you are looking for, then you should use the SAP capabilities.”

Customizing the SAP UI
Some customers go a different route and end up customizing the UI dramatically so that it meets even more of their own needs, Rosenberg said.

“You could use Flash, Silverlight or any of our UI technologies to completely make your own UI," Rosenberg said. "They may have no relation to any screen we’ve created. You might do that on top of any application that we created.”

Adobe, for example, has remade one of its expense-reporting UIs in the open source Web development tool called Flex.  

“They [Adobe] basically cut off our UI, but not our business logic. And it doesn’t look anything like SAP. It doesn’t use colors; it doesn’t use our layout," Rosenberg said. "It’s an Adobe UI bolted on top of an SAP business process.”

Furthermore, Adobe recently announced that its new Flash Builder 4.5 and SAP Netweaver Gateway are now integrated in a way that lets developers create new Flash-based applications and front-end UIs for SAP applications.

Despite the efforts of SAP and its partners, one attendee at the recent SAP Sapphire Now convention in Orlando, Fla., said that SAP’s UIs were a constant issue for her company.

Denise Lattos, who specializes in CRM order management for Rockwell Automation, an industrial machinery maker based in Milwaukee, Wis., said her firm's customers frequently complain that the e-commerce side of the SAP CRM UI they deal with includes unnecessary fields and information.

Rockwell had decided against modifying the UI to ensure consistency across its SAP applications, which also include SAP ERP Human Capital Management (HCM), SAP Advanced Planning and Optimization (APO) and SAP BusinessObjects Global Trade Services (GTS).

In the end, she said, the company decided to leave well enough alone. “It would be a lot more user-friendly if we could do our own designs,” Lattos said. “But from a standardization standpoint, it makes the most sense.”

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