Used or abused?

David Murray, CEO of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, has a serious grudge against the technology industry. At the World Congress on IT in March 2002, Murray blasted technology for not delivering the productivity gains it had promised. One of his main complaints was that technology was frequently too complex to produce any real return on investment. “The same technology that was supposed to make us paperless has allowed a proliferation of paper that has limited productivity,” he protested.

Murray has clearly touched a nerve. Organisations across the world spend billions of dollars each year on packaged applications from software giants such as Microsoft, Oracle and SAP with the goal of making their businesses more efficient. According to a recent report from Forrester Research, however, the poor usability of many of these packages may be costing organisations as much as $6 million annually in hidden costs and lost productivity.

In its report, entitled ‘Packaged Apps Fail the Usability Test’, the market research company evaluated a number of widely used enterprise application suites, which the software vendors would only permit it to conduct under condition of anonymity. Tellingly, more than half of the suppliers that Forrester approached refused to take part in the study, which examined the ease-of-use, reliability and sophistication of the packages involved.

“Our tests uncovered a host of critical failures ranging from crippled application logic to disorienting content presentation,” says John Dalton, co-author of the report. “Even though applications demonstrated obvious value, they undercut that value with problems like massive inconsistency and slow responsiveness.”

Problems included a lack of standardised user interfaces, which led to increased training requirements, buggy code that crashed systems and poor error handling


In practice: Severn Trent Systems

"The implementation of large applications needs to be seen as a business rather than a technology project. I think that's absolutely key to usability," says Joyce Hassall, information services manager at Severn Trent Systems (STS). "You need high quality business users involved in the project, who have a good level of standing in the company, and you also need a very clear understanding of what you want to achieve," she adds.

STS is the IT arm of Severn Trent Plc, a FTSE100 organisation, which includes Severn Trent Water. It provides both an internal IT function to member companies of the group, and software and consultancy services to third parties in the utilities industry and mid-market.

In June 2001, STS decided that it wanted to replace its ageing software systems to boost the company's financial and management controls and improve the quality and availability of management information. Its existing systems, mostly developed internally, had been deployed and integrated on a ‘stove-pipe' basis so sharing data between systems proved difficult and the company frequently had to rely on manual procedures that often led to duplication of effort.

After having undertaken a business process review to work out how best to resolve its issues, STS selected the Oracle 11i ebusiness applications suite since it believed it provided a broad family of integrated applications. It invested in a number of components within the system : Oracle Human Resources (HR) and HR Self-Service, Oracle Financials, Oracle Projects, the Iproc online procurement package and the core purchasing module.

Next, STS made two key decisions -firstly, that it was not going to customise these applications, and secondly, that it planned to map its business processes onto them. The rationale behind this decision, says Hassal, was that heavy configuration would ultimately make the application more difficult to maintain and upgrade. "I think it's in heavy customisation that a lot of mistakes are made and usability can suffer," she explains. Moreover, she says that the packages provide users with different configuration options, so they can decide which ones best suit their business.

Four out of the ten members of the project team hailed from the business side of STS, rather than IT, and at each stage of the initiative, they were responsible for documenting processes, picking up on any issues that arose and dealing with them to ensure that any creases in usability or other issues were ironed out as quickly as possible. STS rolled out its HR and core purchasing packages to its 600 users in January 2002, and completed the implementation in April 2002.



and support, according to Forrester. As a result, organisations were frequently forced to extend their budgets to account for extra training and invest in further customisation, while end-users themselves were frustrated because they were unable to complete the day-to-day tasks necessary for their job. According to Forrester’s estimates, if an average knowledge worker in a 2,000 employee organisation experiences two four-minute-long system crashes every week, they will waste 16,000 minutes per week, or the equivalent of six person-years per annum.

This presents organisations with a dilemma – on the one hand, they want to ease the burden of integration and therefore invest in packaged applications with pre-built functions, yet, as Forrester’s research shows, these pre-configured applications often fail to meet basic usability criteria.

According to Dennis Keeling, chief executive of UK industry body the Business Application Software Developer’s Association (BASDA), implementation is the biggest single factor in getting application usability right. “It can be interpreted as user friendliness, but at the end of the day, it’s implementation that will determine whether something is a success or failure. The vendors have all done a lot of work on usability, but people just aren’t spending the money on implementation,” Keeling says.

Keeling points out that, in the late 1990s, many organisations rushed to deploy systems in a more-or-less ‘vanilla’, or non-customised, form to hit the Year 2000 deadline. As a result, the ratio of software licence fees to services has declined from around 1:10 in the mid-1990s to closer to 1:1, and more and more users are looking to the software vendors themselves to do the implementation, rather than business-focused management consultancies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“It’s gone completely the other way,” says Keeling. “You need to spend time on implementing a package, understanding what it has to offer, how users have been working with what they had up until now, and what they require from the system in future.”

Matt Johnson, a vice president at Akibia, a consultancy specialising in implementing Siebel Systems’ customer relationship management (CRM) software, says that he has also seen more customers asking for vanilla installations since the economy has slowed. This, he believes, is because the initial acquisition costs of a ready-built package are usually far lower than the investment required to change that application to fit an organisation’s own business processes. Moreover, as applications have become increasingly sophisticated, incorporating more and more process flows and best practices, this has added to their ascribed value. But as applications have become more complex, usability has suffered.

Part of the reason organisations encounter usability problems is that, without configuration, vanilla applications cannot possibly match the business processes of every organisation. And although companies such as Siebel and SAP have heavily adapted their applications to suit individual vertical markets, these systems still fail to meet the needs of all companies in those sectors. “Solving the problem is 80% about dealing with change management issues and 20% about dealing with the technology problem. And the technology is typically the easy part to fix,” says Johnson. “You can’t just put in software and not change organisational processes. Just hoping that they’ll change organically is a big mistake and will typically bring about a drop in performance and utilisation, with people looking for ways of getting round the system,” he adds.

So what practical steps can organisations take to avoid the consequences of poor application usability? One of the most simple, according to Johnson, is for their IT departments to simply switch off features that users do not need to make navigation simpler. Another option is to make applications more usable by creating a standard path for users to follow, minimising the risk of going down an unexpected route. Setting up defaults so that the choices presented to users only change when exceptions occur is another possibility.

Organisations can also benefit from allowing users as much interaction time with the system as possible before the implementation is complete. That way, they can provide feedback and suitable modifications can be made. “We like to have users provide input because it helps them feel more ownership and reduces resistance, but this can be a double-edged sword, so you have to manage expectations carefully. In my experience, less than half of organisations choose to gather the requisite user input,” Johnson says.

Failure to do this, however, can have a negative impact on return on investment. For example, if salespeople cannot see the benefit of using a sales force automation package and, as a result, enter relevant sales data only 80% of the time, the information collected will be of low integrity and, therefore, of little value to the business.

Another way to improve usability is to adopt a role-based approach to the presentation of information. According to Stuart Hamilton, strategy director at SAP consultancy Axon, usability problems are most acute where non-professionals try to interact with a particular business function, such as HR, procurement, IT or finance that does not relate to their key work tasks. One means of getting around this is to develop a corporate portal that can be configured to provide users with a role-based view of the applications they need to use. “A usable system is about role-based design. Portal technology sits between all of the businesses functions and provides access to all parts of the business in a way that makes sense to users,” says Hamilton.

If organisations do not take this type of standardised approach to application usability, packages tend to lose value over time as a result of “application atrophy”, warns Bob Parker, vice president and general manager of enabling technologies at AMR Research. “When I implement a package, I take a power user or subject matter expert and train them for a day. But when they change jobs, their replacement probably only gets an hour’s training and so no-one benefits because they take time to become as proficient as their predecessor,” Parker explains.

In the future, both Parker and Axon’s Hamilton expect user interfaces to become more portal-like along the lines of Yahoo’s standard web interface, and therefore more intuitive. Ultimately, they believe, applications vendors will provide disposable user interfaces that can be demonstrated during a sales pitch, but which are also portal-friendly so that users can implement them in a ‘plug-and-play’ fashion.

Furthermore, as organisations move towards deploying applications as web services, using open standards such as UDDI (universal description, discovery and integration), SOAP (simple object access protocol), and WSDL (web services description language), the notion of having a single stylised user interface and means of navigation for each enterprise software package may gradually fall out of favour. According to analysts at Forrester, it will be the systems integrators, rather than the applications vendors themselves, that define application user interfaces and navigation in a web services environment.

Further into the future, Hamilton expects that the whole usability issue to assume a new and critical dimension. “In the end, computer systems will be the way in which we interact with our employer, primarily over the web or via a PDA. It will become the most consistent part of our interaction, connecting us to colleagues, customers and suppliers,” he says. Unless organisations – and the companies that provide their core business applications – can overcome poor usability problems, frustrated executives such as David Murray at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia will take a lot of convincing to sustain their investments in enterprise software.


Sophisticated but unreliable

According to an April 2002 study by market analysts at Forrester Research, enterprise applications are becoming increasingly sophisticated, catering more for ‘power users' and less for inexperienced users with every successive release. When Forrester conducted tests on a selection of the most widely used enterprise applications, it found that many scored highly on sophistication but were ridden with problems such as inconsistent interfaces or slow responsiveness. Below is a list of some of the typical problems and their most likely causes.

Problems: Illegible fonts, unclear or inconsistent terminology, hostile error messages, confusing layout

Cause: Hasty product development and weak user interface design, driven by coders rather than usability experts

Problems: Too many windows or dialogue boxes, incorrect use of controls, broken function, confusing categorisation.

Cause: Interface exposes all of the complexity of the underlying software or poorly managed product development thwarts proper integration of all product modules.

Problems: Frequent system crashes, excessive response times, high error rates.

Cause: Immature development methodologies affect the quality of code and the stability of the application architecture, system responsiveness is not considered in the design phase.

Source: Forrester Research



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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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