Winning Users' Hearts & Minds via Usability: A Retail Example

My recent blog series entitled “Integrated Workforce Management (WFM) Platforms: Fact or Fiction?” established that WFM systems have evolved from point solutions (i.e., time and attendance [T&A], workforce scheduling, absence management, human resources [HR]payroll, etc.) into unified solutions with a common user interface (UI), integrated WFM modules, and centralized management. For virtually for every kind of business, the benefits of WFM platforms should come from a holistic view of labor demand, optimized schedules based on specific labor policies and constraints, and the fact that accuracy often matters more than efficiency.

The next evolutionary step in the enterprise applications realm (WFM systems included) is to leverage Web 2.0 and Rich Internet Application (RIA) tools as well as ubiquitous mobile devices and information to bring informed decision-making to the business user. Persona-based UI development is repeatedly cited as a concept and undertaking of late. The aim is to present data that is specifically relevant to the logged-in user, with presentation methods that are rapidly understood. 

Usability Goals

Over the past 15 years or so, I have had many interactions with users who belittle their current enterprise resource planning (ERP) system one moment only to praise it the next. Many established ERP products have broad footprints and are customizable and functional systems that support a variety of business processes.

Yet the execution of those processes is often very data- and labor-intensive. Indeed, until now, ERP UI’s have typically been dense, based on complicated, rigid, and non-intuitive workflows, use unfamiliar terminology (vernaculars), and perplex business users with too many available options. For example, one typical process may take over 20 busy forms to go through and complete, require the same information in several places, and have up to hundreds of options in a single drop-down list.

Often, these cumbersome 10- and 20-screen processes can be collapsed into just one well-designed screen, complete with the company- and role-specific terminology the user is familiar with. In addition to increased user acceptance, this data-entry streamlining can save time, increase data integrity (by preventing and reducing errors), and significantly reduce training time and costs.

My previous blog series talked about some ERP vendors’ moves with regards to user experience (UX)Most notable has been Microsoft Dynamics’ effort along the lines of role centers and the role-tailored user experience.

The Microsoft Dynamics team (bolstered by a number of dedicated designers, psychologists/observers, usability labs, users/participants, etc.) has visited a cross section of customers over a period of time to help the vendor understand its customers’ information needs and their processes. This has involved concepts such as the following:

  • Contextual inquiries, where the Dynamics team members would observe users in their environment carrying out day-to-day tasks, and record key observations

  • Interpretation and analysis to consolidate the flows and user concepts

  • Analysis involving affinity diagramming to uncover opportunities to impact the user experience

The result of this painstaking research was the Microsoft Dynamics Customer Model that describes how people in departments conduct work within and across organizations. The Model is the repository for all of the Microsoft Business division’s information and research regarding processes and people and is used to ensure that Microsoft developers are focusing on a common set of people and processes when they build Microsoft Dynamics solutions. The Customer Model today consists of the following elements (see Figure 1):

  • Models of companies for small and midsize businesses, as well as large and complex departments

  • 61 “personas” or “user profiles” which represent a typical view of the individuals that can occur within an organization defined primarily by the collection of roles they have. (A role is a specific grouping of tasks that a person is responsible for or participates in.)

  • Five midsize business departments (Operations, Finance, HR , Sales & Marketing, IT & Partners)

  • 15 typical departmental organization charts showing how the personas are typically organized in these five departments

  • 33 process groups that represent the work people do within business scenarios

  • 155 processes and subsequent tasks and steps defined across the 33 business process groups


Figure 1: The Microsoft Dynamics Customer Model (click to enlarge)

For many more details, see my extensive 2009 article entitled “Application Giants in Duel and Duet for Users’ Hearts, Minds … and Wallets.” As a recap, persona-based design revolves around cool pictures, icons, graphics, technology, user interviews, studies, behavioral theory, and much more.

What About Retail Personas?

While Kronos and RedPrairie have being using “personas” for years, both retail-centric WFM vendors have recently respectively engaged Projekt202 and Gomoll Research + Design, interaction and visual design and research agencies to help them take a fresh approach. With help from these third-party experts (who have a number of ex-Apple employees), the two vendors have identified several critical personas, such as site manager, field manager, corporate power user, employee self-service, etc.

Kronos and RedPrairie have then conducted numerous persona-based customer studies and interviews (to define goals and study the problem), day-in-the-life brainstorming discussions, mockup UI reviews, and validation live tests (real users doing real tasks with prototypes before building the real solution). Both Kronos and RedPrairie pledge to continue to do these exercises because they learn more from every customer interaction.

Easing the Life of Store Managers

At the NRF Big Retail Show 2010 conference, I had a chance to see the demo of Kronos’ next-generation UI for retail store managers, which was made generally available (GA) on July 12, 2010. Kronos and Projekt202 have painstakingly mapped out the store manager’s world (i.e., employees, customers, suppliers, regional manager, corporate HQ, weather/traffic forecast, etc.), user states (i.e., monitor, plan, approve, schedule, and communicate), application spaces (i.e., pluggable portlets, cartridges, or Web parts for alerts, scheduling, planning, etc.) to create a compelling user experience (see Figure 2 below).


Figure 2: Kronos' Store Manager Screen

Kronos touts the following traits of the next-generation WFM suites:
Instant Engagement – Refers to the intuitive and inviting user experience that leverages a consumer-centric approach to interacting with business applications.  This approach makes the UI easier to use and rollout the system for hourly and salaried applicants.

Guided Decisions – Refers to the ability to connect users to rich WFM logic and an early warning and guidance system to make better decisions, control coverage, overtime, etc. For instance, when a store manager clicks on the “schedule” alert portlet with an open shift, it guides him/her directly to the “reassign shift” screen and tells him/her which employees are best to fill the open shift based upon pre-defined rules around seniority, overtime, and availability.

The rules might vary, but the key here is that the system applies the rules that are specific for this manager’s situation. The WFM system recommends the employees who fit best and the manager can “assign” that employee to the open shift with a simple click of the button.

Mobile Management – Refers to empowering managers and employees by enabling real-time, bidirectional communications that connect them to each other and their WFM system. With Mobile Management, mobile tools such as Kronos’ Workforce Mobile Scheduler allow managers to quickly and easily broadcast a text message to all employees qualified to fill an open shift. Employees can instantly decline or accept the shift. Once the shift is filled, employee schedules and timecards are automatically updated allowing managers to spend their time running the business.

RedPrairie’s recently released Site Manager product within the vendor’s retail suite is along similar lines and concepts (i.e., the "Fix It" bar). Dear readers, what are your opinions in this regard of flexibility and improved user experience?

How do you decide and make sense of software vendors and their claims about providing intuitive and self-evident applications with zero required training? How important are these criteria in your selection endeavors?
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