Emptoris Empower 2011: Dispatch Four — Streamlining the User Experience With Some Fresh Interfaces

Please click here for the first, second and third posts in this series.

Almost without question, the historic poster child for best-of-breed sourcing suite complexity in terms of user interface has been Emptoris. But for many organizations, the tradeoff between leveraging the underlying functional power and ability to customize Emptoris' capabilities in deployments was a decision worth making (versus just relying on more basic configurations of other tools). Yet most recently, with the rise of a second generation of sourcing user interfaces from providers like Zycus and Rearden/Ketera -- not to mention improvements in competitive capability that have brought a range of other providers to the same level as Emptoris in key areas (e.g., optimization) -- the competitive shortcomings in the complexity of Emptoris' interface, especially for non "power-users" with the need to occasionally walk up and use the application without training, became even more apparent. Yet at Empower, Emptoris not only acknowledged some of these weaknesses -- they set out to confront them head-on in their latest product release, focusing on areas like sourcing and contract management. In Spend Matters' view, they've been partially successful.

For sourcing, Emptoris has simplified the user experience for users that do not require the full solution capability for RFx creation, bid monitoring and contract award decisions. The entire philosophy behind this approach is to simplify complexity. In reality, from our quick look at the product, Emptoris has simplified things to a decent degree, but to access the more powerful capabilities of the toolset (e.g., optimization, bid analysis, etc.), users will need to once truly lift up the desk of a rather complicated workspace that requires a decent operating knowledge of the package.

I find this a significant contrast to some of the ways that Zycus, CombineNet and Trade Extensions have reduced the complexity around basic optimization in the past year -- although the latter two offer more capabilities when pushed, all three can offer the basics in a manner that even an individual who is an e-sourcing neophyte handle on without much training -- at the core. In other words, Emptoris is masking complexity by cordoning off that aspect of the application relative to others who are targeting the basic usability of more complicated tasks. Emptoris could learn much from the capabilities that Zycus is releasing in this area. While not as powerful as Emptoris -- not in the least -- the usability of the more advanced components of optimization in the Zycus tool, taken as they are, is in a different league entirely for the non-power user.

Aside from usability enhancements in the core UI for basic and common uses of the toolset, Emptoris has added some pretty nifty capability around Excel integration, including the ability to truly cut and paste from Excel into the Emptoris browser window (things like this truly unleash my inner geek). Yet at the core, Emptoris' latest release is really about shielding complexity in a manner that the application becomes more usable for the great sourcing and contracting masses rather than power users. Perhaps most important, since the UI can be tied to specific roles and profiles, administrators can opt to select which users will still need ready access to the more powerful and customizable capabilities that originally put Emptoris on the map in the area.

Emptoris' has also performed some nip and tuck in the contract management area. For example, on the contract management homepage, what a user is greeted with now looks much closer to leading VMS tools in terms of what tasks they need to follow and where they currently stand on projects versus the legacy UI of the past. As users come into the application, the system can be configured/customized to greet users with what looks like 25-30 point fonts at the center of the browser window showing the number of contracts requiring approval, the number of contracts requiring review, the number of contracts in draft phase and the number still being negotiated. Of course this information is more than easy to drill into. Contract search and approval pages also benefit from this streamlined treatment, among others.

In short, Emptoris has listened to customer concern over core UI issues and the overall appearance of complexity. Yet in the sourcing area, it seems that the current strategy has been to put a new layer on top of the underlying complexity rather than re-architecting the experience, simplifying how users interact with the more complicated components at the core. In other words, Emptoris has given us a valet key that cuts much of the Porsche's power under the hood. But this approach is not where Emptoris' competitors are headed. They would argue not to just give a valet key that cuts 75% of the engine's power. Rather, they'd suggest the importance of also offering tools that let the masses drive faster and safer, the automotive equivalent of traction control, ABS, etc. -- tools that let a typical driver achieve a much better outcome without simply telling them to go in the slow lane.

No doubt, Emptoris still offers great capability at the core -- some of the most functionally robust and customizable tools in the sourcing, contracts, spend analysis, supplier management and related markets today. And they remain on the top of our shortlist for companies seeking absolute capability. But looking forward, they're likely to lose at least as much as it wins in cases where other best of breed vendors have taken a different UI and complexity course, not just masking the n-tier possibilities of what a solution can deliver, but enabling the average sourcing user to take better advantage of the more nuanced and powerful capabilities of the toolset without having to go through scores of training classes or online tutorials. In short, while the current enhancements are a welcomed step in the right direction, Emptoris will need to confront its UI in the middle of the store aisles -- not just in the window display -- if it is to keep up with others in the market who are aggressively moving down the path of bringing greater power to the average user vs. just the power user.

Jason Busch

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