Up-to-Date Web Sites, Satisfied Writers, and Well-Informed Readers

Nothing is more boring than yesterday’s newspaper. The same applies to Web content. News, special offers, data, and notices that have not been updated in weeks or months are embarrassing and reflect badly on a company’s flexibility. But ongoing updates require a great deal of work – especially with large, comprehensive Web sites. If the authoring system used to update a Web site is difficult to operate, online writers and editors won’t use it. This situation can lead to editing bottlenecks and erroneous and contradictory information for visitors to the sites.

Unwieldy operation

Volkswagen Financial Services AG
Volkswagen Financial Services AG

The 50-plus writers and editors of Volkswagen Financial Services AG, a wholly owned subsidiary of Volkswagen AG, are responsible for a number of Web sites on financial services, leasing, insurance, and direct banking. The legacy content management system (CMS) was not particularly user friendly. The visual design of the pages was complex, and authors were unable to preview the pages. The result? Authors and editors hated the CMS and didn’t use it optimally. Errors crept in; published pages appeared differently than the authors had intended. The quality and efficiency of the authors’ work left much to be desired, and user satisfaction sank.
“At first we thought about making the legacy CMS more user friendly,” says Holger Weidemann, the project manager at Volkswagen Financial Services. “But the conversion would have been too complicated and too expensive. That’s why we looked for another way to simplify the work of our writers and editors.” A study identified the weaknesses of the CMS that new development had to avoid. IT personnel at Volkswagen Financial Services then worked with the writers and editors to develop specifications that detailed the required functionality and appearance of the user interfaces.

Web Dynpro experts sought

It soon became clear that the new solution should be integrated into SAP NetWeaver because the company’s IT landscape was already based upon that platform. “SAP NetWeaver Development Studio proved to be a decisive advantage in the development of our new CMS. Thanks to its user-friendly design, the graphical development environment of the SAP NetWeaver platform enabled efficient work,” says Weidemann. “And we were easily able to adopt the role concept from SAP NetWeaver Portal that we already use successfully into the new CMS.”
Ultimately, the company had to find a new partner to realize the new CMS. “The intended solutions and technologies were rather new on the market,” says Weidemann. “That’s why we looked for a service provider that knew the technology well and could estimate the risks.” In the summer of 2005, Volkswagen Financial Services decided on TietoEnator GmbH, the German subsidiary of the TietoEnator Group. “We’ve been familiar with SAP NetWeaver for several years,” says Harald Freund, the project manager at TietoEnator. Holger Weidemann of Volkswagen Financial Services adds, “The offer was also convincing because it had the best price-service ratio.”
As the project began, no application created in the Web Dynpro development environment was operative at Volkswagen Financial Services. “Our goal was also to be a leader in working with this programming model,” says Freund. “The performance of the planned application could not be estimated clearly,” he adds. An additional sticking point was the page preview absolutely required of the new CMS could not be realized with Web Dynpro technology. “We had to come up with a new idea,” says Freund. “But we at least gave our child a name – FS.Edit – where FS stands for ‘financial services.’”

Sticking with proven solutions

System Diagram
System Diagram

The IT experts at TietoEnator divided the project into two areas to manage it better: development of the user interface and the connection to the database. “Development with Web Dynpro has the advantage of supporting the model-view-controller (MVC) design pattern. This concept enables developers to work out the user interface and the controller independently of each other,” explains Freund. “And you don’t always have to develop all the components of an application from scratch. For example, the legacy database layer had proven itself and could still be used with a few enhancements.”
This approach enabled common use of the database connection for both areas of the project. It also avoided redundant maintenance of the interfaces to the database. For database connections with predefined functions, or stored procedures, a special interface that also enabled distributed transactions was developed. The interface enables consistent modifications of data across several dialogs. The proven data access object (DAO) pattern is used here. The clear structure and high degree of abstraction of the DAO layer simplifies programming tremendously.

Adjusting dialog elements

Interface of FS.Edit
Interface of FS.Edit

TietoEnator designed the user interfaces in close collaboration with the writers and editors. First, the dialogs and functions of the solution were visualized interactively and presented to the writers and editors. This approach allowed developers to capture change requests and suggestions for improvement early in the process. Tabs provide easy access to more than 60 dialogs – for page management, article revision, and online editing, for example. The writers and editors use special editors that offer them easy-to-use selection help to process the content. Users can define properties, authorizations, and views for each element of a Web site. They can also use an HTML editor to easily create HTML pages – it’s seamlessly integrated into the application.
Four roles are possible for each way that an employee appears on the Internet: global administrator, local administrator, full-time editor, and occasional editor. Each role has a different user interface. Tabs are displayed or suppressed; buttons are visible or invisible, depending upon the role. Users see only the functions that they need. “It’s especially practical that the roles were already assigned in SAP NetWeaver Portal, so they could be transferred to FS.Edit over an interface,” says Freund.

Starting anew – a shorter rollout

The functionality of the Web Dynpro development environment had to be enhanced to enable a correct preview of a new or modified page and to read and display graphics directly and dynamically from the database. An additional J2EE component was developed to support this enhancement. It can be used to automatically format binary data from the database for display in a browser. This way, pages can be created directly from the preview – online and offline.
FS.Edit was realized in only two months. Even the initial feedback from the writers and editors was thoroughly positive. “Acceptance was high right from the start,” says Weidemann. After a few corrections, the solution went into operation within three days. “We had actually planned a longer test phase,” says Weidemann. “But the advantages that the new system had over the old system were so apparent that we moved the rollout ahead.”

Better acceptance, better work

Weidemann is particularly pleased that the first Web sites of the Volkswagen Group were created with FS.Edit for the international automotive exhibition in September 2005, “Our last doubts were quickly banished. Our writers and editors accepted the system well.” Weidemann considers the significantly lower number of errors; faster, more manageable, and more efficient work; and the satisfaction of the writers and editors as the most important advantages of the solution. The uniform design of FS.Edit in SAP NetWeaver Portal also contributed to user acceptance. It’s no surprise that the number of users of FS.Edit at Volkswagen Financial Services will be expanded in the near future. Holger Weidemann sums it up as follows. “Web Dynpro proved itself in the project and allowed us to take a step toward a new system landscape at Volkswagen Financial Services. We’re already planning additional projects – the positive experience we’ve had with SAP NetWeaver give us a very good feeling.”

Dirk Carstensen
Dirk Carstensen