Information Worker Meets Usability

One of the users who took part in the activity conducted by SAP User Experience was Sherry Wheelock, a classic-case information worker. Officially, her title at Polk County Public Schools in Bartow, Florida, is “senior business analyst.” But Sherry Wheelock thinks that “senior seeker” would be a more accurate description of her job. Wheelock spends a good portion of her day scouring the vast virtual haystack most call the Internet, searching for text books, catering services, maps, addresses, sports apparel, office supplies, and just about anything else her school district needs. And Google just isn’t making the grade.
Meanwhile, in Palo Alto California, Adi Kavaler, senior director of product management in the Information Worker unit at SAP, is developing what he considers an “amazing solution.” It’s called SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Search, an application that allows users to quickly access not just Web pages, but documents in a company’s intranet, business applications, contacts, and internal analytical information as well. Furthermore, SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Search offers direct links to related business transactions and sales reports – in short, a search engine on steroids.

Learning from each other

Sherry Wheelock and Adi Kavaler meet up at SAPPHIRE ’07 in Atlanta at one of the activities sponsored by SAP User Experience, a multinational working group that bundles many of the usability and user interface design-related resources at SAP. In total, 380 users participate on 24 stations during the three day event – testing a wide range of products from SAP xApp Analytics to SAP All-in-One. At SAPPHIRE ’07, Sherry Wheelock wants to learn about a better search engine; Adi Kavaler wants feedback regarding the usability and functionality of SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Search. Both came to the right place.
“We have been organizing usability events at SAPPHIRE for eight years now, with a growing number of participants on every occasion. These activities have become an integral and expected part of our dialogue with SAP users,” says Keri Carpenter, User Involvement Program Manager at SAP User Experience. “For our developers and solution managers the first-hand experience of interacting with users on a one-on-one basis is a great opportunity to get feedback and pick up ideas,” she adds. Her motto regarding usability is: “Find out what works, what doesn’t, and how to change what doesn’t work.”
Usability studies not only make users feel more comfortable with an application, the testing sessions can also lead to considerable business benefits for SAP customers. Better usability reduces the total cost of ownership of an SAP product through increased user productivity. Another benefit arises from the reduction in customization costs as users’ requirements may be included in the product roadmap and considered for upcoming SAP product offerings. That’s why Keri Carpenter considers the overall usability and suitability of software products to be one of the paramount differentiators in the current marketplace. “Usability definitely increases the competitive advantage of our product line,” she says.

From easy tasks to complicated aspects

To enable the benefits of software usability, SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Search is tested intensively at SAPPHIRE ’07 in Atlanta. After calling up the application from one of the terminals on display, Adi Kavaler hands the reins over to Sherry Wheelock, giving her increasingly complex tasks to complete. She starts with basic term entry and search, and then moves on to sorting functions and external contact searches. It’s slow going at the start, as Wheelock acquaints herself with the interface and the functions. But after trying out a few of the features, her confidence rises. “We try to make the software self-learning, so that customers don’t need special training to use it,” Kavaler says. “After a few tasks, we know that they understand the program concept and the standard usability. Then we move to more complicated aspects.”
Wheelock, a versed SAP application user (the computer graphic on her business card even has “SAP” on the screen), gives her feedback on the application’s usability for the different scenarios. “The buttons are a little confusing,” she says, “and I didn’t know I had to click twice on the search results to call up the document.” Kavaler’s colleague, Anoshirwan Soltani of SAP’s user interface design team, jots down Wheelock’s comments. “We’ve received some very constructive and valuable feedback from the customers we have interviewed,” he says.
After the usability test, Kavaler and Soltani will compile the feedback regarding all aspects of the application, such as functionality, layout, and usability, and prioritize them together with the input from the ten other users they interviewed that day. The product manager and the designer will pass their report with prioritized findings and recommendations to the development team of SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Search. This won’t be the last step in testing the application: The results can spawn further investigation conducted at future usability events.

Taking part in the development process

Incorporating the suggestions and needs of users into software design from the very beginning of the development process and as often as possible is a fundamental principle of product development at SAP. The SAP User-Centered Design (UCD) process meets this demand as it allows users’ feedback to play an important part in validating the central features of the software before its development is finished.
In the first phase of the UCD process, experts from SAP User Experience and solution managers measure the requirements, skills and work habits of users in order to understand their needs and discover opportunities for further product improvement. The results of these tests are converted into interaction use cases that define a product’s handling from the user’s perspective. The use cases can guide the overall product development requirements with specific design propositions and set the foundation for further validation activities.
In the last step, SAP developers transform the use cases into user interface designs. This phase starts with fast, low-fidelity prototypes and ends with interactive, high-fidelity prototypes, incorporating the feedback from continuous usability testing. “The results from these tests help us to make the right design decisions,” says Keri Carpenter. “We can avoid the risk of a lack of usability at an early stage of the development process and we increase the probability that the final navigation, terminology and task flow will fit the customer’s needs.”
At SAPPHIRE ’07, Adi Kavaler is satisfied with the results of his usability session. “According to the feedback, we are heading in the right direction with our future vision,” he says. “Our current design already addresses customers’ disparate requirements. We are working hard to address the needs of the information worker, and Sherry fits this profile perfectly.” The testing person, too, has come away with some useful information: When SAP NetWeaver Enterprise Search becomes generally available at the beginning of 2008, she and thousands of other information workers will be able to drastically cut the time they spend searching for the information they need.

Perry Manross

Johannes Frevert
Johannes Frevert