Customer Experience Management (CEM)

No longer fugly, SAP makes a surprising UXP splash

When it comes to brands that people associate with delighting the world via a great user experience SAP would be well down on most people’s lists. It would surely be way south of Apple, Google, Facebook or even enterprise brands like Salesforce.com or Microsoft. But the German company is a surprising new entrant for the user interface virtual hall of fame.

Introduced this year, SAP’s Fiori user experience is currently being rolled out across the company’s applications either as a bolt-on or native to new software. The language the company uses when describing Fiori is telling. On its website it says this:

“Using modern UX design principles, SAP Fiori delivers a role-based, consumer-grade user experience across all lines of business, tasks, and devices.”

That’s some turnaround: the most enterprise-y of enterprise software companies on the planet referring to delivering a “consumer-grade” experience. But it’s also indicative of what’s happening in enterprise software generally. Once upon a time companies talked up their “carrier-grade” or even “military-grade” robustness but today business software designers often take their visual cues from social networks, shopping sites or even computer games.

The thinking has some logic. The most popular consumer software tends to be intuitive and often attracts community, sharing and user-generated discussion and reviews. This is precisely the opposite of the old business applications: think of all the shelfware that must have accumulated over generations of CRM and knowledge management systems, for example.

SAP is winning respect from some surprising sources. Design guru Don Norman recently told IDG Connect that SAP “has done a really excellent job with their in-house designers ... Now, most people dislike SAP and say they are unusable. But SAP has over 200 excellent designers who have done brilliant work.”

I recently spoke to another well placed person to comment on the state of SAP and UXP. In 2006, Tim Kyle helped set up Keytree, a London-headquartered specialist Digital and SAP consultancy. This was, Kyle says, “before the advent of UX as a term” but he saw an opportunity for a pure-play consultancy that could make SAP applications more attractive and usable.

“We had a predilection for user interfaces and SAP’s were not as attractive as many suppliers’. We overlay the simplicity of a consumer digital agency onto the complexity of the enterprise world.” Soon companies like News International and British Gas were using Keytree’s skins. It’s not about delivering some vaguely defined aesthetic appeal for the sake of it, Kyle says. If the UI is ugly or difficult, systems will fall into disuse, especially among the ‘light-touch’ users that don’t spend their whole time interacting with SAP screens.

The force behind Fiori is SAP chief design officer Sam Yen who has implemented a “Design Thinking” ethos that predicates user needs and productivity. That ethos is also behind other new developments such as SAP Screen Personas for drag-and-drop UI modification.

“Sam Yen has done a brilliant job,” Kyle says. “[Design Thinking] propagates exactly the same vision we had: standardise and simplify.”

You might expect the manager of an agency that puts snappier front-ends on SAP to be worried by SAP doing so itself - but if he is, Kyle hides it well. There is still scope to put “precision” user interfaces on top of SAP, he says, as well as deliver other digital services.

He also shouts down a familiar refrain: that tweaking enterprise software is wrong in the age of Salesforce, cloud computing and fixed or menu-based offerings.

“Everybody thinks customising SAP is bad but it’s actually what everybody needs to do,” Kyle argues. “In every standardised case there’s always an edge case. In HR, finance and manufacturing there are standard components but outliers exist. The trick is to [support USPs and differentiation] but always plug it back into their standards.”

Kyle says that Keytree UK customers like Jaguar Land Rover, pub chain JD Wetherspoon and baked foods giant Greggs are often taking standard “vanilla” SAP implementations and then later innovating on top of that base layer and moving away from the traditional blue and grey SAP screens for specific use cases. And with SAP HANA Cloud Platform (HCP) Kyle argues that Salesforce now has challenger in the PaaS market.

“Salesforce with Force.com was probably showing the way but SAP has powered past it,” Kyle says. “From a tools perspective, using HCP is as quick, if not better as using the customised tools out of Salesforce. The key is the common integration platform – the glue. Don’t mess with the core.”

Kyle might have an axe to grind but he’s no SAP fanboy. SAP CRM was previously “dire”, he says, but SAP is living up to its Run Simple marketing. He’s also impressed with the way that SAP has bought cloud services like SuccessFactors that also have strong focus on UXs.

However, it’s not just SAP that’s changing. Fellow ERP supplier Infor went so far as to create its own “internal creative lab” called Hook & Loop in the artsy Chelsea district of New York. Hook & Loop even has its own slogan of “No fugly software” – “fugly” being “ugly” preceded by a well known other word. At current rates that could become the tag for modern enterprise software design across the board.


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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