Design as Intuitive as the iPhone

SAP: Anyone who’s fiddled with an Apple device understands the importance of design and its impact on the user. But does business software have to be as intuitive as an iPhone?

Dan Rosenberg: To achieve SAP’s goal of touching 1 billion users by 2015 as well as our revenue and growth targets, we need to make design a central theme and a core competency. Apple’s success rests in their ability to market “design” as part of their brand. Their “iSomething” products generally offer a highly intuitive user experience, but more importantly, they delight their customers. Apple’s design team delights users by doing exactly what they want in the way they least expect it.For example, zooming visualizations is not a new idea; the delight came from the introduction of multi-touch.

However, it is important to recognize, as your question indicates, that we are not in the same business as Apple. We build products which make people more productive. Whether it’s a complex product for a specialty user or a simple iPhone app for a CEO, both need to leave the user with a sense of accomplishment – without frustration – and the security that their task was completed. So we need to be as good as Apple, but our design solution, and the way it increases the SAP brand value, will not be achieved just by copying Apple.

Dan Rosenberg, SAP SVP of User Experience

SAP: There’s no shortage of design buzzwords circulating today. Among them: design thinking, beautiful UIs, user experience, gamification, mobile first.  What’s the essence of what people need to know about good product design?

Rosenberg:  First, people need to know that “beauty” is a subjective assessment relating to works of art. When speaking about design, I prefer the term “elegance.” It is possible to recognize elegance with clear design intent in well-designed products without making a subjective judgment.

For example, it is possible to feel this way about automobile design, as is my case with BMW. The prior generation of BMWs was very angular, and people generally either loved or hated them. But I really appreciate the fact that Chris Bangle had the guts to make such a strong branding statement.  It clearly worked from a financial perspective, and that is the goal of design – to make money, not art.

Regarding gamification, I think the jury is still out on whether this is a passing trend or whether SAP can use it to increase delight in our products without compromising productivity. I recommend that anyone interested in this topic read Jane McGonigal’s book, “Reality is Broken.” As she points out, playing games is voluntary and work is not.  Therefore, simply adding gaming on top of existing UIs is likely to backfire.

Lastly, the PC era is over, so mobile first! Developing for mobile devices and expanding on that for the corresponding desktop application is the obvious choice considering the growing number of mobile devices. There is an advantage to starting with a smaller screen because it can help force prioritization of functions and lead to simplicity. Having said that, we still see too many cases in our own Usability Lab where our apps are over-featured with functions not appropriate for mobile consumption, and this immediately lowers usability.

SAP: Should SAP then forget the redesign of its on-premise products and concentrate on the consumer-grade design of our mobile apps and on-demand solutions?

Rosenberg: We cannot afford to forget about our on-premise products, particularly now that maintenance has been extended to 2020. We have some great improvements and innovations coming in the next SAP Business Suite release. Bernd Leukert, head of Application Continuous Innovation at SAP, has done a great job making this a focus. Fortunately, there are a number of innovations underway, like the mash-up Side Panel UI, available in the latest SAP NetWeaver Business Client, which can quickly enrich existing applications in a flexible, context-specific, and non-disruptive way.

In customer meetings, CIOs have told me time and again that mobile is not the antidote to a bad desktop user interface. In the words of a top executive from a large food maker: “Mobile is not a deodorant for bad desk top UI.” Customers like our mobile user experience approach, but they want to see that same level of design quality brought back to the desktop products they already purchased.

SAP: Business software is increasingly compared to consumer software, but how does the design of SAP products compare to competitors?

Rosenberg: I honestly don’t care how we compare to other applications, even though I led the User Experience team at Oracle for 11 years. As we move to the cloud and mobile, the buying decisions are made not by the CIO, but rather by end users or department managers. These customers compare SAP SRM to and SAP Travel Management to their favorite vacation booking website. For this reason, we baseline the SAP usability KPI against Amazon, Google, iPhone, MS Outlook, and MS Excel among other consumer product experiences.

We do care, however, about the products from Microsoft, such as Excel, which are the de facto standard in their class. A key part of our SAP user interface strategy is to deliver SAP content into the standard environments where people are already spending their day. It is particularly important for the SAP BusinessObjects portfolio and SAP HANA to deliver finely tuned usability inside Excel with functionality that only we can provide. This is how we meet user expectations.

SAP: What role does design thinking play in product development at SAP?

Rosenberg: Design thinking plays an important role at SAP because we are a starting to substitute it for traditional product management approaches.  But we are not the only company doing this. Intuit, for example, has integrated design thinking into their development process under the title Design for Delight, which is the same thing by a different name.

Design thinking is about meeting customer needs but not purely on the user interface. Thus, the method can be used just as easily to create a healthier menu in a cafeteria. The goal of this method is to make sure we “do the right thing” which is not the same as “doing things right.”  In my 30-year career as a designer and design manager I have encountered many instances where a team built a highly usable product that was a market failure because it did not solve a meaningful problem for the customer. Avoiding this situation is SAP’s prime motivation behind the broad adoption of design thinking methods in combination with Agile programming.

SAP: What’s your favorite app from a design perspective and why?

Rosenberg: You probably expect me to name something on my iPad, but my favorite app is a digital music workstation program called Studio 1 made by the German company PreSonus. It’s the backbone of my home recording studio and like all DWAs takes time to learn. I spend hours using this program every week. I love it because it lets me focus on the music and not the engineering process of recording, mixing, and mastering a CD.

SAP: How do you think SAP can continue to improve the design and usability of its products for the benefit of customers?

Rosenberg:  This is simple. I would tell employees to get out of the office and go observe real users in action, feel their pain, and understand their needs before making product content decisions. Don’t just talk to them. Follow them around and watch what they do and what work artifacts they create. This is the essence of design thinking.


About Dan Rosenberg:

Daniel Rosenberg looks back on over 33 years as a professional in the area of user experience for enterprise software. Prior to joining the SAP in 2005, Dan was vice president of R&D for user interface design at Oracle. Previous corporate positions include user interface architect for Borland International and Ashton-Tate. Dan has authored and co-authored 40+ publications in the field of human-computer interaction.  He was also one of the founding editors NetWorker Magazine from the Association for Computing Machinery.  He is also the only “industry” board member of