Why “User Experience” (UX), not UI, is what should matter to CFOs

27th October 2015

The notion that business software should be ‘easy to use’ is something that everyone can subscribe to, yet surprisingly few people can define - terms like ‘user interface’ and the ‘user experience’ are used interchangeably but are profoundly different.  Added to which, few business users can claim to be excited by the software they use in their day-to-day business lives?  Yes, business software has become more functional, intuitive, graphical and intelligent but it rarely approaches the intuitiveness of popular social media apps that we use in our private lives.   How does one transform business software from a chore into an “experience” and what are the commercial business benefits to be gained from making the user experience more compelling?

 

 

 

The User Experience (UX) versus the User Interface (UI)

The need for business applications to catch up with the ease of use of consumer applications has gained significant ground in the last few years.  For example, it is now more widely understood that if businesses are to attract and retain talent, especially the so called “Millennials” entering the workforce now, business applications need to attain the usability of iphones, social networking tools and apps that form an essential part of their lives.

This has spawned a whole new movement around the notion of “beautiful” software. But the pursuit of good looking software for its own sake is a misguided goal.  The old adage, “beauty runs more than skin deep” applies to software as well. The UI should certainly look appealing and easy to navigate but the key to unlocking productivity, workforce mobility and user fulfilment lies beneath the surface.  Today’s business applications need to be both a “beauty” and a “beast”.

A fulfilling “User Experience”, or UX as it’s called in the industry, incorporates the best thinking around the user interface and navigation but it also looks at process flows to determine how productivity and responsiveness can be enhanced, for example, by bringing relevant information from different applications onto the same page of a report or dashboard, reducing page clicks and embedding collaborative social tools. 

Truly liberating software subsumes good looking software into the whole user experience. You can’t have one without the other.  The UI is the beauty and the power of the application behind that UI is the beast.

The UX and performance management

The quality of the UX becomes a crucial consideration in complex business applications such as corporate performance management (CPM).  It is also one of the factors that differentiates unified CPM from the Best of Breed approach which has become more fashionable with the advent of the cloud.

CPM applications (for example, financial and operational planning; consolidation and close; internal and external reporting; business analytics) are inextricably linked. Each process is interleaved with the next in an intricate loop that allows for the development and communication of business strategy, the alignment of corporate resources and the monitoring of outcomes so that management can take action to ensure the strategy’s success. Implicit in the performance management paradigm is that all of the relevant processes share the same processing environment, that all of the relevant applications are tightly integrated and that they all share the same metadata (for example, structural information about accounts and business entities).

But successful CPM is just as importantly about binding the different participants (CEO, CFO, CIO, Controllers, Line of Business leaders) to the process itself, as well as to each other. And it is in support of these very human needs that the quality of the UX can be a make or break consideration of CPM solutions.

It’s a different way of thinking

Software houses at the leading edge of UX recognise that traditional methods of software development are not always appropriate. For example, the skills of the user interface designer are very different from the skills necessary to create a fulfilling user experience.  UI developers focus on visual design (colours, typography) and overall visual impact – natural strengths of web developers and graphic designers.  On the other hand UX developers focus on ‘human-centred’ design looking at process flows, tasks and usage scenarios, often backed by hours of observation and research. This is the domain of information architects, content strategists, functional analysts and even educational psychologists – but not traditional software engineers and programmers.  It requires domain knowledge and of how a product is used across a complete process not just at the individual user level.

Tagetik 5 puts UX design centre stage

Tagetik, was one of the first CPM software houses to appreciate and confront the issue. Its newly designed interface in Tagetik 5 leverages best practice in UX development to make the system compelling to use whether the user is an experienced ‘knowledge worker’ or an occasional business user.

UX design is about enabling the system to work the way that users want to work rather than the other way round.  Take for example the introduction of webforms which provide users a choice of which way they prefer to work, for example, in an intuitive Excel-like environment over the web or a native Excel front end.  In a similar vein, users can customize and personalize their home page; adding tasks, reports and data entry forms that they most commonly use in their role.  Finally, an innovative “process cockpit” gives managers and administrators an enhanced graphical view of workflow progress by user, activity, and process.

A notable feature of all of the above is that the entire experience is configured by the user, leveraging pre-configured capability and without recourse to any specialist IT resources.  This is critical to providing a UX that supports your specific process rather than forcing you to conform your process to the UX.

Going mobile

A rise in the popularity of mobile computing is also dramatically changing the way that finance professionals interact with their information and other systems. Finance these days is “always on” and mobile makes it possible for finance to be always on without losing their nights and weekends.  In this environment the challenges are amplified since there is little guidance by way of precedent and ‘ease of use’ has to contend with more limited screen sizes.  However, the latest HTML5-based developments allow even complex needs to be rendered responsively in a multitude of mobile devices, enabling a variety of typical CPM tasks such as journal entry, review and comment on reports, authorising budget requests and reviewing KPIs to be performed on the move.  With this mobile UX, finance staff can address a pressing issue on Saturday morning without missing their child’s football match.  In the high stress world of finance today this can mean the difference between productive work-life balance and staff burn-out and turnover.

How does the UX affect bottom line?

The commercial benefit of the UX is frequently overlooked and undervalued yet it makes a vital contribution to responsiveness, decision-making, user productivity and fulfilment.

Those that have grappled with historic CPM suites cobbled together from software products of different origin know just how much time is lost when products are not designed to work together seamlessly from day-one.  The argument isn’t just around lack of integration and inconsistency of metadata (even though this remains an issue). More acutely, the software is just too difficult to use and deploy because the UX is severely compromised by inconsistent design of the UI and fragmented processes.

This means that users spend a large portion of their day simply looking for information (some estimates put the figure as high as 25 percent). And when the UX is fragmented it reinforces functional divides, dampening organisational responsiveness and ‘time to decision’.

Furthermore, inconsistent design increases the time to learn how to use the software and hampers staff mobility, making it difficult to shift expensive and highly qualified personnel from producing say, external financial reports to internal management reports or to smooth out other peaks and troughs in workload.  On the flip-side an innovative UI without the “beast” behind it to support the complete user experience quickly loses its luster and usage (and productivity) plummet.  That’s why a really good UX requires both the beauty and the beast.

Summary

It is only in recent years that businesses have come to appreciate that the advantages of a well designed UX extend well beyond the narrowly defined confines of the user interface.  CFOs now understand that an outstanding UX is vital if an organisation is to leverage the full potential of unified corporate performance management system. 

Unified CPM guarantees a common foundation layer (data, metadata, workflows, calculations) that allow applications to work seamlessly together, but it is the UX which allows people to work seamlessly.  And it is this union of these ideas that creates additional value by reducing the learning curve, promoting worker productivity, encouraging staff mobility and enabling better collaboration.  Progressive CFOs understand that process excellence needs more than just beautiful software.

 

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