User-friendly interfaces are absolutely essential, particularly for mobile solutions. To provide effective support for field sales employees, the software must take account of their particular work situation, among other things. For example, it is an advantage for maintenance engineers if they can operate the application with just one hand, so that they have the other free to operate different devices. The particular features of mobile terminals, such as a lower resolution on PDA displays, also place demands on a solution’s user-friendliness.
A project at the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI), a privately funded department for IT system engineering at the University of Potsdam, shows how even small enhancements to the GUI (graphical user interface) can improve the ergonomics of mobile applications. For their thesis, the eight students developed innovative graphic elements for mobile user interfaces, called widgets, and integrated these in the standard software for asset management, SAP xApp Mobile Asset Management. Widgets provide information or enable communication with the application, for example via icons, selection boxes, progress indicators, or scroll bars. The eight new widgets for the xApp include user-friendly input options for appointments and maintenance data, as well as an overview-like navigation display. They are a useful enhancement to the maintenance solution, are easy to implement, and run on various operating systems on PDAs and laptops.
The source text remains the same
In the six-month project, in which the HPI worked together with the SAP branch in Berlin, the students undertook a feasibility study to analyze the mobile devices – PDAs with the Microsoft PocketPC and Windows Mobile operating systems, and laptops with Windows XP – compared the performance of the operating systems, and drew up a business blueprint for implementation. During development of the widgets, they used the SAP concept for modification-free enhancements of the functionality of mobile applications. The concept enabled them to implement their own programmed logic into the standard system without having to change the original source text. As a result, the software can be easily adapted to special customer requirements, for example a different screen sequence, changes to the displayed fields, or new tools for input and operation.
Time recording without delay
One of the new widgets for SAP xApp Mobile Asset Management is for time recording, which enables the user to create appointments, for example. Graphically, it looks like an analog clock, and consists of two rings. The user enters the hours in the outer ring and the minutes in the inner ring. The display of minutes and hours is user-definable. Because it makes optimum use of the space available on the display, the widget is easy to use: on a PDA, the user only needs his or her thumbs. Previously, data input was not so user-friendly, as there were only two relatively small columns available for time selection.
The laptop version of the widget is based on the AjaX concept, where the client and server communicate asynchronously and prevent the HTML document from having to be completely reloaded after every time selection, which would lead to long wait times that are no longer acceptable.
As the browser integrated in the Microsoft Windows Mobile and PocketPC operating systems does not support the commands required for programming the widgets, the students used the Java SWT library for the PDA version. This enables graphical user interfaces to be configured with the help of the system’s own representation forms so that the interfaces match the look and feel of the particular operating system.
To enable the JSP application to work with the new library, the SWT widgets are surrounded by a separate framework that takes on the function of an agent. As a result, the widgets can be called on an event-controlled basis, and can be accessed multiple times within an application.
Orientation aid for navigation
Another widget the students developed was for a progress indicator (Breadcrumb Navigation) for PDAs and laptops, which provided an overview-like navigation display, known as the “MenuMap.” The MenuMap displays all the important links within the solution, for example links to existing orders, messages, or technical objects, in a clear way and with additional information. Users can see how many orders and messages are new, for example.
The progress indicator can be shown at any time in the SAP xApp Mobile Asset Management application, or can be set up as the initial screen for the special “MAMToday” application. In a similar way to Outlook, MAMToday provides all the day’s tasks in an overview and thus helps users to plan their work.
Sorting lists clearly
Another new element for the GUI of the laptop version is an option that enables lists to be sorted in several columns and according to different criteria. This was not previously possible with the standard settings, which made it difficult to search for certain pieces of information, especially in lists with several thousand entries. The students therefore implemented a sort mode, which enables users to change the sort settings, such as the sequence and number of columns, without the need for a reload. To activate the sort mode, the user clicks in the header area of a column, and the column is then used for sorting. An active sort mode is indicated graphically by a different background color and a frame around the selected column.
A lens was developed to make it easier for users to select the right element, particularly in large lists such as a list of business partners. This is based on a fish-eye lens and enlarges everything it focuses on, while the peripheral information is reduced.
An advantage for usability
All the widgets are freely configurable, simple to use, and easy to implement. They are available to all SAP xApp Mobile Asset Management customers, and are provided on request as part of the service offering. At the moment, a large German energy supplier is implementing some of the widgets, including MAMToday, in its mobile maintenance solution, to improve ease of use for its employees.
The project at the HPI shows how profitable a close partnership between SAP and the universities is for both parties. The software vendor works with more than 500 research and education establishments around the world as part of its University Alliance Program. With this program, SAP provides free software and training, among other things, and in turn benefits from the work conducted by the students and researchers.