UX Design: Five Principles for Creating Unique, Flexible User Experiences

Artificial intelligence is changing the way we work. Moving away from the traditional paradigm of humans operating machines, AI transforms the interaction between humans and machines into a dialog between partners with complementary skill sets.

Designers were among the first to understand the potential of AI to improve the experience of individual users. Design provides users with more meaningful information and options that can help them master complexity. In the past, however, intelligent designs added complexity to the user experience with features such as relevance ratings, recommendation options, confidence ratings, and incompetent chat bots. This led to user frustration and mistrust.

After all, people aren’t interested in cool technology features. They just want the best way to do their work. Users expect AI to function in an unobtrusive, reliable way. At the same time, they want to be able to understand, correct, and override intelligence if needed.

To meet these needs, designers must support a seamless collaboration between humans and machines, where both use their specific strengths to support one another – but humans retain control. We have developed a set of design principles and guidelines to establish this approach in our solutions.

New Interaction Techniques

AI provides a huge opportunity to combine traditional means of interaction, such as mouse and keyboard, with new techniques, such as gaze control and conversational interaction. Today, none of these methods are well-developed enough to replace the others, but combining them can become a game changer.

Gaze control can increase speed and productivity by offering additional information on the user’s focus. This supports easier selection and filtering, contextual information, and more detailed information. Conversational interaction allows users to express their intent in their own words and allows systems to translate these aims into an appropriate response.

All of these channels help designers widen and enrich communication between humans and machines – supporting more intuitive, immediate, and bidirectional communication.

More than ever, technology has become a social force, and design is shaping the way this force interacts with people. Enterprises communicate their values not only through marketing messages, but also through technologies used by their employees and customers.

Therefore, purpose has become a larger focus for enterprises. Questions like “Why are we doing things?” and “Are we doing the right things for the right purpose?” have assumed a higher priority. Design can influence the interaction between businesses and their employees and customers. This influence goes beyond corporate identity and marketing and reflects how decisions are made and communicated.

To empower the workforce and gain employees’ commitment to enterprise purpose, design must create software that reflects respect and transparency. Therefore, spending time explaining actions and decisions should also be part of the user interface design.

Designing for the Everywhere Interaction

Today, the combination of smart devices and appliances covers a good part of our interaction with our technical infrastructure. Technology is embedded in our daily lives, creating the user experience of the digital world. We interact with the most complex systems through any available channel, in any possible situation. Enterprise software is following suit. Business tasks are already becoming accessible through standard interfaces embedded into other channels, such as smart speakers or car interfaces. With the SAP Fiori user experience, we have started breaking down complex business tasks into smaller apps that can be completed on a phone.

We are reducing the information even further by identifying specific figures that users need in each context and allowing users to adjust figures to their individual needs, securely and reliably. Thus, modularization and contextualization of complex information structures in the back end is both a design and technical challenge.

While users expect simpler and more natural interaction with software, the underlying facts and processes are getting more and more complex and intertwined. This is apparent in enterprise software, where we are exploring the potential of new visualization and input methods. We are looking beyond charts into multidimensional visualizations and AI-optimized visualizations that differentiate signal from noise. Using predictive technologies and combinations of input methods, including gaze and speech, enables better accuracy and faster input than traditional means.

Finally, constructing and harvesting context information is one of the most powerful tools to simplify user interactions. Based on context, systems can detect business process exceptions and associate combinations of parameters with business impact and suitable mitigation. With a better understanding of the business context, the system can detect, confirm, and correct the machine’s interpretation and solution proposal without requiring the user to manually enter data.

Top 5 Design Principles

To address these current UX trends, I recommend that developers focus on five key design principles.

1: Understand the user and the use case
This is the most important principle. Creating a product must be focused on the people that will use the product to accomplish their task. Neither architectural nor design excellence will help save a product that misses the use case.

2: View limitations as a source of innovation
While boundary conditions are often determined, many innovations have been triggered by a creative way of addressing those boundary conditions. Things we can’t imagine today may be possible tomorrow.

3: Embrace diversity
Enterprise software is an enabler for businesses, and we can’t afford to leave anyone behind. Different people, working conditions, and cultures determine whether a solution is enabling or hampering productivity. Understand those differences and design for them by contextualizing them, creating specific variants, and offering supportive means and smart suggestions. Finally, offer the tools that allow customers to optimize standard solutions with little cost.

4: Keep the user in control
At any given point in time, users must be able to understand and control the status of the system. User control means that system decisions must be clearly communicated and can be overwritten. Empowerment requires knowledge and transparency.

5: Design stretch-fit solutions
Standard solutions that are designed for best practices and use cases can further be optimized to stretch fit individual roles and preferences by means of usage-based optimizations and through personalization and automation.

Flexibility Versus Scalability

Many things that sound exciting in consumer software are not appropriate in an enterprise setting. Business processes must be standardized, reliable, repeatable, and auditable. And even if we strive for the best user experience for the individual, companies must ensure that people do things the right way.

Training and supporting employees require stable, standardized processes and software. Required process steps, checks, and information must be entered correctly and, in most cases, can’t be left to the indeterministic decision of an electronic mind. Therefore, corporations tend to restrict flexibility and leave adjustments in the hands of certain expert users. Flexibility can only be offered within clearly defined boundaries, leaving the underlying business processes unchanged.

The highest potential for individualization is the contextualization that helps provide users with right solution options and defaults in any situation. While the process stays unchanged, the system becomes better at providing the right information at the right place, offering the right options that best fit the situation.

Today’s technology allows us to design systems that better understand users’ intentions and support them in the best possible way, keeping them in control. Yet flexibility must allow the system to adjust to the user’s information needs and intentions without compromising the procedural, legal, and economic goals of the enterprise.

In enterprise software, innovation in interaction patterns must be evaluated against the impact on employee productivity. Unless we identify significant improvements in effectiveness or efficiency, using established standard patterns that require minimal training and change management is preferable. In many cases, the challenge in enterprise design isn’t coming up with an innovative and appealing new design, but is optimizing and extending standard designs to meet the complex and specific requirements of certain business roles.

The art of our profession is creating a design system built on components and patterns that are simultaneously stable and reusable in various business contexts, work with long and short texts in different languages, are accessible, and can efficiently be used across different devices. This is a huge and often under- estimated investment.

We implement scalability in design into our technical frameworks. This helps us and our customers create and maintain effective, efficient solutions at the lowest possible cost of development and ownership.

Our role as designers is to make sure that our products make the best use of our design system, are constantly optimized to fit user needs, and can be implemented in a scalable technology framework. As we have seen with SAP Fiori throughout the past seven years, this is an evolutionary process that requires continuous investment.

And design is just a part of the story. For us this means working closely with our product units, customers, and development teams to adjust our designs to best accommodate user requirements, market needs, and technical restrictions.

We don’t design for the purpose of good design. Instead, we design to create products that help our customers best support their business – making it sustainable and resilient to any turn of history.


About Horizons by SAP

Horizons by SAP is a future-focused journal where forward thinkers in the global tech ecosystem share perspectives on how technologies and business trends will impact SAP customers in the future. The 2020 issue of Horizons by SAP focuses on Context-Aware IT, with contributors from SAP, Microsoft, Verizon, Mozilla, and more. To learn and read more, visit www.sap.com/horizons.

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Alex Lingg is head of SAP User Experience.