The Technology Behind UX

The future belongs to responsive design à la SAP Fiori, but many customers are still living in the “GUI world.” UX technology supports both.

If you own a Samsung smartphone or Apple tablet, you’ll find it hard to imagine anything other than slick interfaces, touch-screen displays, and intuitive software. And instruction manuals will seem like relics from a bygone age.

Private users have high expectations of their mobile devices and the fiercely contested market for these devices is so diversified that only truly user-friendly products have any chance of success.

The Future of UX: SAPUI5, Decoupled Front and Back Ends, Cloud Tools

In the B2B world, the story is somewhat different. Because despite the fact that the simplicity paradigm epitomized by Apple, Amazon, and Facebook is technically feasible for B2B applications, not all companies are yet able to pass this simplicity on to their users.

“In many enterprises, SAP GUI is still the dominant user interface technology,” says Nis Boy Naeve, Vice President of User Interfaces at SAP. “But we are changing this situation by enabling responsive interfaces with SAPUI5, decoupling the front and back ends, and using cloud-based tools to develop interfaces.”

Integration platforms, tools, and programming languages are the basis for all of today’s user interfaces – on desktops, tablets, and smartphones alike.

1. Programming Languages

ABAP has been the dominant language in the development of SAP’s graphical user interfaces (GUIs) for more than two decades. The SAP GUI software is usually installed locally on Windows (currently Version 7.40). Web Dynpro ABAP, which was designed specifically for developing Web applications, has been in use for the last eight years and is fully integrated in the ABAP development environment. SAP uses another Web technology too: SAPUI5, which is evolving into the quasi-standard of the “new” UI world, SAP Fiori.

In order for HTML5 to be used in the development of business software at SAP, open source software had to meet specific requirements in terms of security and usability for the visually impaired. “SAPUI5 follows the open Web standards,” says Naeve. “OpenUI5, the Open Source version of SAPUI5, can be used by anyone, with or without an SAP license, and includes access to free JavaScript libraries.” Which means that developers can use graphical images from a free library and incorporate them into their own designs.

“Dynpro UI technology is 20 years old. When we build new applications – such as the SAP Fiori apps – today, we use SAPUI5,” he explains. Nevertheless, while SAP Fiori is definitely gaining traction, there is still a broad customer and user base for dynpro applications.

“Most of our large enterprise clients have already looked into the topic of SAPUI5 though,” says Naeve, who sees the decoupling of the front and backends as a particular plus point of the new solution. “Because, with user interfaces evolving at an ever increasing pace, they know that they must be prepared.”

2. Tools

The Floorplan Manager offers developers predefined building blocks and layouts (or “floorplans”) based on the SAP design guidelines that they can use to compose new interfaces and develop prototypes in Web Dynpro ABAP. Like the Floorplan Manager, the SAPUI5-based tool SAP Web IDE (Integrated Development Environment) also contains ready-to-use layouts and templates – in addition to all the flexibility offered by JavaScript and HTML5. However, SAP Web IDE  does not need to be installed locally, because it is hosted in the cloud and is preconfigured for immediate use.

“That’s a big time-saving boost,” says Naeve. Users can currently choose from some 450 SAP Fiori applications – for maintaining business contacts, keeping an eye on sales opportunities, compiling to-do lists, and so on (see The Hottest SAP Fiori Apps). “In most cases, SAP Web IDE lets you adapt these applications to fit user needs without making any modifications,” he explains.

Another important tool for personalizing user interfaces is SAP Screen Personas. Users select the SAP GUI transactions that they need for their particular role and then decide which functions they would like to see on their screens and which they would like to hide. With a similar level of ease as in PowerPoint, they can delete data fields, rearrange screen elements, and thus create a completely new, personalized interface from scratch.

In practice, it is generally power users or IT personnel – not the actual users – who perform this screen personalization process.

“Many users are reluctant to do it themselves because they’re worried they might “break” something,” says Naeve, even though all that’s happening is that a new mask is being laid over the existing one, which remains completely intact. The UI Theme Designer, on the other hand, is definitely one for the IT professionals: They can use it to change color schemes, create special designs for different departments, and define parameters all the way through to the CSS level.

3. Integration Platforms

SAP NetWeaver Business Client (NWBC) integrates various UI frameworks and harmonizes access to SAP GUI transactions. “It looks like a browser and is as easy to use as a browser,” says Naeve. One of its primary functions is to provide a role-based single entry point to business applications.

The NWBC also incorporates the “side panel” concept, which allows users to display additional context information that relates to the main application they’re working in, such as inventory levels, or to make notes without leaving the screen they’re in. SAP NetWeaver Portal positions itself as an enterprise portal with a content management system for texts, images, graphics, and applications.

Over the last six months, the SAP Fiori Launch Pad has also gained prominence. With its intuitive UI, responsive design for use on desktops, tablets, and smartphones, and its lack of superfluous functions, the SAP Fiori Launch Pad is the model for the user experience of the future.

“The entry point to apps works in the same way as on smartphones and tablets,” says Naeve. The only drawbacks at the moment are that not all SAP applications run on the platform and that you can’t use the SAP GUI in quite the way that Nis Boy Naeve envisages: but that issue will be redressed in one of the upcoming versions of the Launch Pad.

In theory, there are no longer any technical obstacles in the way of offering business users applications that transport business content without quite offering the level of simplicity that consumer smartphone apps do. In practice, however, it will be some time before that happens seamlessly across the multitude of different technologies and systems that currently exist.

UX will feature prominently in SAP’s stage program at CeBIT in Hannover. Follow the link for information about upcoming UX seminars.

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