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SAP's Sam Yen on how the design thinking process drives innovation

In an interview, SAP's chief design officer discusses how enterprises and especially IT need to embrace a design thinking process to meet the challenges of business disruption.

In the enterprise software world, entrenched giants like SAP are finding massive and complex ERP systems, with their function-driven UIs, are very much out of step with cloud-based and consumerized applications.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that SAP is rethinking the way it develops and delivers its applications. One of the most prominent examples of this is SAP Fiori, which brings a more consumer software-like and mobile-ready user experience to SAP systems. SAP's digital transformation is being driven, in large part, by a design thinking process that puts design at the heart of development.

In this Q&A, Sam Yen, SAP's chief design officer and managing director of SAP Silicon Valley, discusses the design thinking process and some of the ways SAP is using it to innovate.

What is the design thinking process, and why are companies interested in it now?

Sam Yen, chief design officer of SAPSam Yen

Sam Yen: Design thinking process is super-hot in industry now, and not just the tech industry. But it's really important in the IT industry because organizations are undergoing this massive disruption. There's this equation that basically says innovation equals creativity times execution. Most organizations are good at execution, but how do you scale that creative mindset for you to think differently so you can transform and reshift your whole organization? This methodology of scaling creativity and raising the creative competency of your entire organization, I think, is at the heart of design thinking process.

Why is design thinking critical for IT departments, which have traditionally been concerned with more nuts-and-bolts technology issues?

Yen: The IT industry in particular is at this inflection point. Because on the one hand, digital transformation is disrupting industries, and businesses want to bring IT in to help with their transformation.  But if you're not careful, the IT department might actually get left behind, because IT is only seen as information technology, not innovation technology. So, the IT organization has to show to the business and prove to the business that they have this innovation mindset, that they are fast, agile and flexible enough to actually bring the technology know-how and experience, and work with the businesses to help with this transformation.

At SAP, what are some examples of applications that came from design thinking?

Yen: One is the Digital Boardroom, where we worked with [SAP customer] Colgate to follow a design thinking process to understand where the business was going. We had this shiny new technology a couple years ago with HANA, and [SAP founder and chairman] Hasso Plattner called the CEO and chairman of Colgate to say, 'We've got this great technology and we think it could play a really big role in the strategy of how you run your company, but we don't know. Let's do some design thinking workshops together.' The Colgate CEO then brought 17 of their top leaders -- the heads of their lines of business, some IT people -- to SAP in Palo Alto, [Calif.,] where they did a weekend design thinking session. Together, we identified the opportunities where having enterprise data at your fingertips in real time can change the way that you run your business, and from that came the initial uses of what has now become Digital Boardroom. We also did this with 15 other CEOs of large companies.

Is that how things are typically done, by workshopping ideas?

Yen: Yes; if you look at creativity as problem solving, how well do you organize your organization to solve problems, and what's the analogy for creativity? We think of it as problem finding, and why is this important? Because in digital disruption, the boundary conditions have shifted; you have set up your organization and business processes to optimize on executing on a certain known reality. But when things start to shift, you have to take a step back, redefine a new problem that's worth solving in the first place, and that's where design thinking comes in. These workshops are all about taking a step back and getting the key stakeholders to identify that there is this new reality and boundary conditions, and determining what's worth solving in the first place. You can't do that only from a technology perspective; you have to bring the business and customers together. You sit around and say, 'These are the innovation opportunities,' so that's what design thinking is at a high level.

So, the most tangible and visible manifestation of that from SAP is Fiori?

Yen: Yes, Fiori is SAP's offering here, and it represents all the stuff we talked about. Our journey manifests itself in terms of Fiori as a user experience, and then the other stuff is the tools that we're using, the training that we're using to train our own people, the things that we're doing internally to scale that. We're taking the 10-year journey that we've had and try to encapsulate that in terms of tools. And now, we want to offer that to the entire industry so that our partners and customers can also go on that user experience journey and hopefully make SAP more usable in terms of products through Fiori. The bigger mission is to bring that consumer experience to the entire enterprise industry, and anything that we can do from an SAP perspective -- whether it's tools, education, training or partnerships with Apple -- supports taking enterprise experience to the next level.

This is more than just nice design. What are some of the other things that go into the experience that may not be as visible as Fiori?

Yen: It's a complete paradigm shift from the user-experience perspective. In the past, we were very function-oriented: If you were a CFO, we had a three-letter acronym solution for you with FIN; if you were the head of sales, we had CRM; if you were the head of procurement, we had SRM. And that was how we delivered software. It wasn't just SAP, it was the entire industry, but the user experience followed that. If you were a salesperson, your monolithic departmental app was CRM; and we had thousands of features in there, but as a salesperson, you only really use five or six things.

Fiori is more of the Apple approach: It deconstructs these monolithic departmental apps into smaller, task-like apps, and then allows you as an end user to go to a store and choose the things that matter to you, just like in your personal life. But beyond that, we also recognize that even though you are a salesperson, you also need to do two or three other things -- such as your time sheet in HR or a shopping cart from purchasing, or if you're a manager, you need to keep track of your expenses and your overall expense management and budget. So, the first the notion of Fiori is this role-based and much smaller deconstructed apps. Second is extending a more coherent design language -- the look and feel of the interaction patterns, the fonts and colors -- to the smaller role-based applications for a more consistent user experience. Then, underneath that [are] the different ways it can be implemented -- in HTML5 or UI5, the SAP technologies, or more recently with Apple iOS.

What has been the industry reaction?

Yen: It's interesting. We started winning design awards not just from the enterprise sector, but from the overall design industry. Last year, we won a Red Dot award, which is one of the most prestigious design awards out there -- and it's not just for software. The customer and analyst response has been great, but we have work to do. We have over 300,000 screens in the Business Suite that we built over the last 25 years, so it's not instantaneous, and we can't just flip a switch and everything's there. It's going to take us a while to roll that out, but in terms of what people are seeing and the initial response that we've gotten has been phenomenal.

What's the ultimate impact of the design thinking process as it relates to digital transformation?

Yen: For enterprises and IT to be successful, innovation and user experience have to be at the top of mind, or else businesses are going to go elsewhere. And it's not just an SAP problem, it's an industrywide problem, and we are looking to help our customers overcome this and transform information technology to innovation technology. The consumerization of IT means that personal life and work life are blending closer together. We live in an age when you work from home and shop from work, so this blur is just happening more and more, and the expectations are set that we have to respond as an industry. 

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