Usability Still a Problem for ERP Users

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:

  • Confusion regarding what screen to go to and what process to follow next. There are not many systems out there that suggest subsequent steps for the user, or provide guidelines for the business process overall. There are many business process management tools offered by ERP vendors, but those tools often require separate purchases and are not always helpful in screen-to-screen navigation.

  • Surprisingly, there is often still a need to remember or write down many pieces of information (such as financial figures, item IDs, and supplier/customer IDs) instead of these items appearing as system suggestions within a continuous workflow.

  • Unclear logic regarding many systems’ functions and their sequences. Relatively simple processes that, for instance, require opening one or two screens in one system may require going through four or five different forms within different modules in another system.

  • Not showing a current user’s location and lacking navigation tools or links to related functional features on a screen—for example, the screen looks empty and the system requires going to the main menu in order to reach another functional screen.

  • Too many functions on a single screen is also confusing to end users—screens in this case often look congested with fields, tabs, and many various types of functions. In combination with small font sizes, this rapidly leads to a lack of attention to detail and eye fatigue.

  • Although rare, confusing, complicated, and illogical menus also prevent users from performing tasks effectively in the system. I have seen a case when even software consultants weren’t able to quickly find a certain menu function and explain the logic of it being where it was.

  • The capability to have multiple screens open simultaneously looks simple and obvious but it is not always an available option due to technical limitations or other reasons.

  • Software that requires extensive technical knowledge of application tools or database structure in order to proceed with oft-performed or relatively simple tasks. An example of this is the need to create and run a query in order to obtain basic information on orders or some elements of master data, instead of looking at one screen with required live data available in the grid with columns and rows that can be filtered and modified.

  • A lack of adequately written and context-sensitive software help can be frustrating in the case of dealing with a non-standard business situation or trying a rarely used function of the system.

  • Although mainly a technical and hardware-related issue, a system’s response time can also be a usability problem. This is an important consideration for a user’s convenience and efficiency, and can be crucial for both on-premise and cloud-based systems.

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.

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