User Experience in organization's internal systems

When I started this blog a few months ago, I've hinted at one topic that I haven't touched yet - the importance of User Experience for Enterprise Resource Planning, Intranet and other intra-organizational systems.

Much has been said about User Experience when it comes to E-Commerce, Corporate Websites and marketing apps and adds around the web. However, when it comes to organization's internal tools, user experience tends to be neglected or barely considered when discussing or developing a new system or upgrading an old one. After all, the ERP and Intranet systems are very expensive - often a multi-million dollar investment - and every effort is made to remove the perceived unneeded cost. This, however, can prove to be far more costly in the long run than many companies expect.

Luke Wroblewski, one of world's most renowned user experience designers, often talks about simplified forms that reduce the erronous input of users and thus increases conversions. This does not go just for users wanting to buy something from you, it goes for your employees as well, except they're not the ones buying - in their case, a conversion is simply a task done - a properly filled customer order, a correctly entered delivery, a validated coupon.

Pre-GUI Interface
If your employee-facing interface looks like this, it's time for an upgrade.

Consider the following example:

A company sells product A with accessories. Employee doesn't know what exactly the accessories are, because the company's system does not provide this information on the front-end. To get around this, he places a fake order, because he knows that when an order is printed, the information will be available in the text elements of the printed order. However, as the customers draws his attention, he forgets to delete the fake order from the system, so now the product is ordered and delivered. The employee is reprimanded for his error.

Can you spot the problems here? Let's list a few critical ones:

  1. The whole thing begins with the fact that the employee does not have access to the necessary information to advise the customer. Whether this is a limitation of the system or the failure at programming, this is unacceptable in the information age.
  2. You must always predict the creative use of your system by the employees. If the employees are not given the necessary information to do their job, they will find creative ways to get it - including placing fake orders, as seen above. Creative solutions to overcome the limitations of the system always lead to problems.
  3. The fake order is placed and delivered. No signature (and thus no legally binding contract), no advance, which is a requirement for this product. Human validations are unreliable and will fail from time to time due to simple human error, whereas automated validations against preconfigured set of requirements are far more reliable.

Let's look at another example:

A company sells thousands of products each day over several distribution channels. As a series of products is found with a critical production flaw, it is decided to temporarily stop the product's sales. However, when the ERP was developed, nobody in the company thought to ask for an ability to globally update a set of products' distribution channels at once. As a result, somebody in the company now needs to manually open every single one of the products and turn off the channels.

Both of these examples and many alike have two things in common: they cost their company a lot of money and they can easily be prevented through the use of modern, user-friendly interfaces. Most modern ERPs and Intranet systems offer some variant of web services, which make it easy to interconnect various external elements using simple APIs. Tools once used to build websites can act as interface clients, providing the missing link to user experience with web-service and/or database-driven back-end, coupled with javascript driven front-end. Frameworks such as Drupal and AngularJS allow developers to rapidly prototype functional elements in a fraction of time that was once necessary, whereas unit testing ensures the quality of code that goes into live systems is always top notch.

Inline validations with javascript
Thanks to prevalence of web services, web solutions can compete with more traditional systems in delivering the necessary information in real time - here an inline validation of a text field's length.

But do not think that user experience improves simply by making the interface pretty. In fact, I believe we have all seen far too many examples of pretty buttons and frames that were a complete disaster to handle. That shiny button doesn't help anyone. Instead, what matters is that the right information is available where it's needed, that automated validations make human errors less likely and that the interface is easier, even intuitive to navigate, which reduces training costs for new employees.

In the modern age, such a user interface isn't all that expensive to pull off and saves multiples of its value in the long run. So the next time you'll be planning to invest in your company's internal systems, keep this mind - your employees' user experience isn't an unneeded cost - it can prove just as, or in some cases even more important than the user interfaces of your webshops.

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