SAP aims to give its business software a consumer-app makeover

It's time to make boring and drab enterprise software screens a thing of the past, according to SAP

A series of initiatives are under way at SAP with the goal of bringing its business applications much closer to the ease of use and eye-catching visuals provided by consumer applications, particularly ones made amid the boom in mobile computing.

Enterprise applications have never been too pretty to look at and this has persisted despite the fact that some categories have decades of maturity. There's a good reason for this, said Sam Yen, SAP's global head of design and user experience, in an interview at the Tech Ed conference in Las Vegas this week.

"In the beginning it was always about feature-functionality," he said. Customers would solicit bids from a number of vendors, all of whom would attempt to meet every check on the customer's functional wish list. "Companies were incentivized to provide the most capabilities."

But this resulted in bloated applications with a complex user experience.

SAP has been rolling out a number of consumer-themed applications with a mobile sensibility, including a new photo-sharing application that was showcased at Tech Ed this week. These products are the work of a startup-like venture within SAP called App Haus, which Yen has led.

The mobile wave has forced a "complete 180-degree shift," in how applications are being built, Yen said. "It's not about building as much functionality. It's about choosing functionality that you want to leave out."

Mobile devices' smaller screens force this since there's less real estate to display the application, he said. "You don't want tons and tons of functionality on a small screen."

It's also time now for enterprise vendors to closely consider each type of user and their job responsibilities, Yen said. "The most important thing to think is that your software is not the center of the world."

In other words, end users generally do a lot more things during their day than interact with a specific application, a fact that makes usability an even more crucial trait, according to Yen.

SAP has for some time incorporated the "design thinking" concept popularized by Stanford University professor David Kelley. In practical terms for SAP, this means that developers are creating many small prototypes and iterations of an application, and involving users in testing early on. "The worst mistake you can make is to wait until the end," Yen said.

The vendor is also trying to give customers tools that make it easier to build user-friendly applications as well as freshen up existing ones.

At Tech Ed, Yen demonstrated a new product, AppDesigner that allows users to quickly create simple applications in a drag-and-drop manner. It's being used internally but there's no date yet for a release to customers and partners, he said.

Another new offering, called Screen Personas, enables users to rejigger and add some zip to their traditional SAP GUI, such as by getting rid of fields they don't necessarily need for their day-to-day jobs and adding colorful background images.

Screen Personas doesn't force customers to undergo an enhancement pack upgrade, instead connecting to the SAP kernel, Yen said.

It will be available this year as a "repeatable custom solution," but SAP is also planning to standardize it as a product to be released sometime next year, he said.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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