Being an enterprise resource planning (ERP) analyst, I spend lots of time watching demos provided by different ERP vendors during certification programs or other events of this nature. At those hours-long live software demonstrations we are able to see how various software systems are designed and how they execute their main intended objective—making an entire business more efficient. With respect to ERP systems, usability and positive end user experience are extremely important for achieving this goal.
ERP software was notorious for years for its tenuous usability, due to the software’s overall complexity and lack of appropriate technical instrumentality to provide desired interface features. However, the modern ERP industry has evolved dramatically over the last decade, thanks to new technologies and tools that have emerged, and new ERP development philosophy, mainly due to Web-based applications and, later, cloud computing ideas. And many ERP software vendors do a really good job in the usability direction, introducing interface and other human-software interaction tools and improvements on a regular basis and within a systematic enhancement roadmap. At the same time, based on many cases that I have seen, I still don’t have much confidence that usability is something ERP developers always think about first and that the ERP industry has made all possible efforts to make its products more user-friendly, intuitive, straightforward, and comfortable to use overall.
Certainly, business software is not an entertainment product and it is not intended to provide amusement, however, human factors and end user experience should not and cannot be the very last priority for developers of ERP products. I clearly realize that a lack of user-friendliness in ERP software solutions is often not the fault of developers or product managers, as they might be very restricted by technical limitations, software development roadmap directions, other important priorities that interfere with usability improvements, remaining inherited software development flaws, and so on. Yet, although many arguments can be brought up as an excuse, the end result—ERP interface and usability level—are the things that eventually matter the most.
Usability is something that is relatively difficult to measure and compare, and there is a whole theoretical science on software usability that I am not going to touch here. From the standpoint of an end user who is far away from technical theory, some selected usability problems are:
ERP applications with interface and overall usability issues generally require more time for users to learn and get used to. But everything counts in the highly competitive ERP software market; there are no “small” things in the user’s interface design. These small details may seem secondary for a software vendor but could be critically important for an end user. Having two identical sets of features and functions from different competing ERP vendors available, the preference most likely will be given to the software system with superior usability.
Having spent fourth-four years in Manufacturing Systems I can say you make some good points on ERP systems in the market today. Two major points however should be made and the first is the role of User Training. User training is never emphasized enough in new ERP projects. Good training packages should negate much of the lack of User friendly environments. The second point is the role of End User procedures. Another major part of ERP projects that is rarely adequate and affects End-Users in ERP systems and usually is addressed well after the go-live. End-User procedures can help minimize the lack of user friendly ERP Packages.
Some packages like SAP R/3 have evolved to overcome some of the technical faults in ERP packages. This system will emit key data elements in subsequent transactions. For example, when inquiring on a part number screen if you subsequently use a different transaction that is also material oriented the system will populate that next screen with the part number used in the previous screen.
Thank you for your comment, Don. I agree with you - the role of training and clearly identified and stated procedures is essential, those can mitigate the lack of ERP usability.
Don, I too have lots of years in manufacturing systems and have subscribed to the training mantra. Always underestimated and cut at the last minute.
After 30+ years I realize that is not going to change, so I no longer believe that training is the entire solution. Technology users are expecting a more intuitive interface and are finding it in most of the applications they use.
Employee turnover, time constraints, and infrequent use of some processes leads to scenarios where mistakes can be made. ERP vendors can eliminate that issue with a more intuitive interface, and I say some have.
I believe that Aleksey is on to the most poignant issue in ERP, user adoption. Functionality has become a commodity, the question becomes can the user fully utilize it at an economical cost?
The convoluted way most ERP systems functions is a definite constraint to users fully utilising ERP.
The confusion of opening multiple screens and error tracking when a function wasn’t correctly executed encourages shortcuts to the easiest outcome even if this means not utilising the full suite of tools available to perform the function.
Irrespective of the useability of the system users still have to complete the work and they will find a way because they have to. This may not be using the system as designed.
ERP usability is one of the main reasons that I am seeing BPM tools take-off. Because BPM tools are all about designing, building, and navigating the process, they have been designed to sit over the top of other systems, and dip into those systems as required. Take for example a credit application. Often this would require information from the accounting system and the CRM systems as a minimum, as well as tracking who has applied, who has approved etc.
Doing this all in the ERP system can be really clunky, and disjointed. Doing it in a BPM tool that then dips into the ERP and CRM systems, and maintains its own tracking mechanisms of who did what, when, and what was changed, escalated etc. in the process, is generally an easier thing.
That nearly every major ERP system now includes a “workflow” component demonstrates that ERP vendors recognize this to be true. The challenge is that no ERP system covers all of a customer’s requirements, and it is the non-ERP systems that blunt the effectiveness of the ERP workflow systems.
I believe that the “appification” of software and mobilization of the workforce and workforce platforms (e.g. tablets, cloud) will see us move down the path from all-encompassing, behemoth ERP systems to BPM toolsets sitting on top of various slick point-to-point systems.