Bottom-Up Innovation: the SAP Inscribe Story

SAP Inscribe, a new and natural way of interacting with software, will soon be offered to SAP customers.

It does happen: SAP employees have creative ideas and in their spare time passionately follow through to turn their concepts into amazing products the likes of which the world has never seen before. Take SAP Inscribe, for example. Formerly known as project “E-Quill,” it all started with a spark of inspiration from a video game, a handful of employees who enjoyed working together, and luck finding an innovative customer. That mix then thrived in an environment designed to cultivate creativity.

The result is a whole new way of interacting with software.

Striking Gold

Here’s how it started: Philip Miseldine, developer in the SAP Design team, often relaxes with classic video games from his youth. One day he found himself thinking, “I’m on this tiny screen, drawing a line to connect three points, and a treasure chest appears. What if, like in the game, I could draw on the user interface (UI) to do other things? I cross something out, the system interprets my squiggle, and something happens. From a development perspective, there isn’t any reason this technology couldn’t be used in a different context.”

The idea grew as he considered the possibilities: “I keep a pad of paper near my computer to take notes when I’m doing something that requires a few steps and different UIs, like booking a trip. There’s one UI for the flight, another to find a hotel, another to arrange airport transportation. What if I could use this smart tablet like a pad of paper? What If I could circle words that are important, cross out options I don’t like, and write words to explore other ideas? Imagine a system that could understand my scribbles and handwritten notes and react to them in a single UI, but in a way that comes very naturally.”

Friends Among Colleagues

At this point, Phil was just one guy with an idea. He talked to his manager, Hanswerner Dreisigacker, who not only gave him the freedom to work on a prototype but also took on an active supporting and advising role. But Phil knew he needed more help to realize his vision. He gathered together some friends from around his organization with whom he had recently worked on another UX research project. Christian Geldmacher, Judith Schneider, and Sebastian Werner soon joined in their spare time.

A prototype was soon born to get this, in Phil’s words, “crazy idea” ready to show to Maricel Cabahug, then senior vice president and global head of Design, UX and SAP Fiori Product Management, and now chief design officer. She recognized the potential immediately, encouraging the team to develop the concept even further.

Christian, resident design thinking guru, and Phil set up a loose structure with the makeshift team to generate new ideas and apply focus and rigor, helping mature the project from a cool idea to something more concrete.

“In the early phase of such a project,” Christian says, “it’s important to have the right level of freedom to explore. As you move forward in the process, you have to reduce the amplitude of ideas and number of iterations to execute.”

According to Judith, “The hardest thing about this project was that there was no reference. We had never seen or worked with anything like this before.”

As the designated designers, she and Sebastian were mainly concerned with crafting an amazing interaction experience.

“The colors and other visual aspects were much less important in the early stages,” affirmed Sebastian.  “We had to make sure that when the user wrote or scribbled something on the screen that the system would understand that. Otherwise it would not be cool.”  He laughed, “We were always asking ourselves, ‘What do people do with paper, and how do we find the digital equivalent?’”

As the designers created new interactions, Phil kept pace with iterative coding. As the ideas and energy escalated, he reached out to Dennis Weissmann, a talented student with strong skills in iOS development. With Dennis onboard, progress swiftly transitioned from vision to reality.

Looking for Mr. (or Ms.) Right

It wasn’t long before the time arrived to look for an innovation partner. With full conviction, Christian insists, “There is no way to do serious innovation without a customer. It’s like sailing without a compass! It’s so easy to go in a trillion directions and nobody knows which is best.”

Through the CEI program, the team got in contact with L3 Technologies. Jason Shearer, lead data scientist at their Salt Lake office, was thrilled about the potential of SAP Inscribe.

“L3 is embarking on a journey of digital transformation with SAP Analytics Cloud and SAP Digital Boardroom,” Jason remarked during a recent visit to Walldorf.  “SAP Inscribe is the perfect companion for executive analytics. The teams are integrating the products in an elegant way with the new DiBo API, delivering a fantastic, personalized view of the boardroom to our users. SAP Inscribe is a natural fit at every level of UX. I’m just glad analytics is at the front of the line!”

“We got really lucky with L3 and in finding Jason,” Phil says. “He’s a big thinker, but also practical. So, he was not expecting a fully functioning application in the next quarter. The key is that Jason is very, very smart and shares our vision.”

And the team’s passion is growing, as new talent has rallied around the vision and promise, turning this amazing prototype into an amazing product. As Maricel Cabahug emphasized, “This is exactly the kind of culture I want in SAP Design – a startup culture where everyone has the right to work on a great idea, pitch it to management and get funded based on merit.”

“Phil saw this coming before any of us,” Jason told us. “We have a long road ahead, but there’s no doubt that this is the future of user experience. Now it’s time to take this message to the world.”

And the team is doing just that, by racking up major design awards and impressing customers at every turn. They have already pocketed the prestigious IF Design Award 2018 and at SAPPHIRE NOW this month, SAP Inscribe was announced and demoed in SAP CEO Bill McDermott’s keynote.

Going Beta

Toward the end of this year, SAP Inscribe is planned for availability in beta for select customers; general availability is targeted for early 2019 on SAP S/4HANA. Customers interested in joining the beta program can sign up here.

Top image via Chris Lafleur, picturing the original project “E-Quill” team. Clockwise from left: Judith Schneider, Christian Geldmacher, Sebastian Werner, Phil Miseldine, Dennis Weissmann.