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What do CIOs need to know about enterprise UX and UI?

User experience design and user interface design can boost productivity, customer communication and your competitive edge. Here's what they are and how to get them.

Enterprise UX and UI are exciting and challenging areas for technology vendors, enterprises and the users who interact with their products. Creating better UI and UX design is not just about prettying up the software. Indeed, it can help boost productivity, customer communication, company performance and value gained from IT investments. Part of this is because ERP systems have accumulated so much code that they no longer compete on features and functions. Challenges today center on dynamic business processes and understanding, particularly related to user-friendly analytics. These are very "people-centric" domains.

The challenge for organizations that have already invested a lot in their systems is how to "get" new UIs and UXs into their organization. Do they have to just wait for the vendor to upgrade the UI/UX technology? Or are there things they can do within the enterprise to refresh their systems?

There are three paths here:

  1. Purchase development "neutral" tools. This is a "go it alone" strategy where the developers use tool sets for design and wireframes, purchase development suites (Oracle/Java, Microsoft, open source like Red Hat or WSO2) or what may be called Enterprise Architecture suites (Appian, SoftwareAG and many more), or opt to write the Java or HTML code.
  2. Buy UI as a built-in feature of the application suite. Enterprise UI and enterprise UX are generally part of an enhanced release provided by the big applications vendors -- from the small SYSPRO's to the large SAP's of the world. UI/UX usually sits on top of modules like analytics and reporting.
  3. Buy, or access, UI-building tools through vendors. Enterprise vendors also have design studio products for sale, though many give them away. IT or their consultants are using these to modernize and unify systems across a vendor's suite of applications. They also might be part of software development kits (SDKs) that vendors have for partners to develop.

UX vs. UI: What's the difference?

UX design refers to the term user experience design, while UI design stands for user interface design. Both elements are crucial to a product and work closely together. But despite their interwoven relationship, the disciplines themselves are quite different. Whereas UX design is a more analytical and technical field, UI design is closer to what we refer to as graphic design, though the responsibilities are somewhat more complex. In a nutshell, UI is more about the design of the technological elements with which a user interacts, such as input controls, navigational components and informational components (e.g., message boxes), whereas user experience refers to the much broader category of overall experience and feeling that a particular technology gives users, and includes architecture, accessibility and performance of the technology products.

A number of large enterprises; the consultants they hire; and, for that matter, software firms are used to acquiring a "neutral solution," that is, a tool set that gives them total freedom to develop from scratch applications or change their UI. So these kinds of firms don't have to wait. The mega-size e-commerce companies, financial services, big pharma, big energy and government tend to have a development tools-centric IT strategy. They have a best-of-breed portfolio and lots of in-house developed applications. Tool sets help pull these all together in a more cohesive way. However, many industries are quite wedded to the software market and dependent on them for modernizations of systems. These firms will want to look at number two and three from the above list. So let's look a little more deeply into the question: Can I upgrade my UI, or do I have to wait for the vendor?

Most of the enterprise ERP providers require that a business customer be on a certain version of software or platform to "get the new UI," since UI is intimately woven into a specific release. Companies such as Infor and Epicor used the modernization of their UIs -- and a lot of other new features -- into selling opportunities. For these two, the UI was the icing on a huge makeover of their software. SYSPRO's Quantum architecture is another example worth noting since it provides tools for users to unify their mobile options (Apple, Android and Microsoft) with desktops, social and reporting.

Practically speaking, the amount of integration and change in architecture to provide this type of freedom and flexibility on the front end is substantial for the vendor. UI and UX are usually part of a broader modernization strategy on the part of the vendor, often where they release cloud or mobile versions at the same time or add other needed capabilities.

Companies like NetSuite, Salesforce and Microsoft provide development tools and SDKs for users and partners to build on their core platforms and enterprise solutions.

This brings us to SAP, which is an interesting, nontypical case. SAP has declared that it is going all-out with Fiori UX across many of its products -- mobile, HANA-built applications and SAP Business Suite (enterprise). Fiori provides an easy to use rich library to guide companies that use its products through design to implementation via a library of templates, design options and so on. SAP users don't necessarily have to wait to begin updating their enterprise UX and UI. It's worth noting that since Fiori can be used in conjunction with NetWeaver and is based on HTML5, users should be able to use Fiori across non-SAP applications, as long as they integrate through Netweaver. This philosophy is very spot-on, since today many organizations no longer think of ERP as the center of their universe and are using cloud and rich integration suites to weave together processes and systems. There are prerequisites, however, in terms of software and tool releases that are needed for Fiori. A note of caution for those who want to go it alone: We need not remind them that SAP multilayered architecture is complex. Using Fiori is not just about a cool design studio; it requires developers to understand how modeling in Fiori is implemented in ABAP/Netweaver.

Another cautionary statement is at the heart of UI vs. UX. UX, aka user experience, is not just new pretty screens, but can profoundly change work flows and other aspects of how people interact with technology. So whether your organization's approach is ambitious -- going forward before SAP -- or conservative -- waiting for Fiori to come to you -- you will not only need to understand the underlying architecture as we mentioned above, but you'll likely have to rethink work tasks and flows.

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