Friday Rant: Bridge the UI and Design Gap or Die

Earlier this month, I sat through a software demonstration with a highly capable vendor that has grown materially in recent years to look at their new user interface. This is a provider with not only a wide footprint, but also significant depth in rather complicated areas in the broader P2P space. Coming off a long summer vacation where I spent zero time working in enterprise applications but quite a bit of time in the iOS world, the 45-minute or so walkthrough of the new user experience and interface reminded me just how far we've come in designing enterprise applications for greater usability, yet critical material gaps remain in bridging the consumer and business divide.

Immediately upon starting the demonstration, I grasped this was a vendor that partially got the transition -- especially for power users -- but that somehow fell short on the front-line user side in truly making the experience natural and easy. It felt somewhat like the earlier versions of iDrive, BMW's less-than-stellar attempt at avoiding buttons for navigation, radio, phone, etc. In many ways, the UI challenge with what I looked at compared with peer products was that it was over thought in terms of internal engineering -- much like the BMW interface, in fact -- rather than working backwards from the user to the product to engineer out anything that might cause confusion or pregnant navigation pauses.

Certain companies truly understand the transition that is rapidly taking shape. SAP is one of them (even if not all of its applications have made the switch). At Sapphire earlier this year, as we noted in a previous post, the venerable ERP giant showcased procurement applications designed entirely around the iOS (Apple) mobile operating system. And if you wanted a product demonstration of another SAP solution at the event, some of the product managers simply took out their iPads and showcased the latest through Safari (or an IOS app).

Beyond SAP, in the P2P space, many of the search/shopping cart/front-end vendors have made the switch to delivering a largely if not entirely consumerized experience on the desktop (and in certain cases in mobile platforms, at least in part). Vinimaya, WALLMEDIEN and jCatalog all have made the transition from clunky, older UIs informed largely by the early days of Ariba Buyer to far more streamlined products that are easy to walk up to and use.

Yet outside of P2P, the situation is less than ideal, with lackluster design innovation compared with what one would expect given the UI revolution shaping the consumer and enterprise worlds. In fact, within the sourcing, supplier management and contract management universe, Zycus is really the only vendor we're aware of that's released a suite essentially built around a simplified design philosophy. Yet given how it lacks some of the advanced capabilities of its peers, it's hard to make direct comparisons at this stage on an apples-to-apples basis.

Within sourcing, specifically, the major challenge (and opportunity) for providers is to gradually present the complexity of what's possible (e.g., constraint-based optimization) as specific scenarios unfold. Limiting the number of constraints that are possible to a handful of canned options (e.g., split of business), for example, may seem like a logical approach to reducing apparent complexity. But this inherently restricts the value of the application, especially for more advanced users.

Perhaps the path sourcing and supplier management providers will take in the future will more closely resemble what some of the VMS providers have done in the services procurement sector by offering decision guidance. Think of it as a Garmin navigation device where you're not entirely sure of the best way to get to a given location and you want the route optimized, as you drive, based on evolving conditions.

Based on where someone is in a given process or within the VMS application, the system itself recommends actions or call attention to data that could be useful. For example, some of these tools can automatically present contextual information such as whether pricing falls outside a standard benchmark band when a user is likely to want such insight in the context of making a decision without having to click or navigate away to call upon a specific report.

At the end of the UI day, it's clear to me that the next two years -- and I really think the cutoff point will be the end of 2014 -- will require that all software providers in the procurement space to make the transition to truly intuitive user interfaces that encourage the use of more advanced features rather than simply masking complexity. Those that don't are likely to slowly fade into source-to-pay obscurity as customers migrate to applications that are truly built for the modern user.

- Jason Busch

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