CONVERGENCE - Can Microsoft make users 'love' its software?

Microsoft believes its user-experience research could make people forge emotional connections with business software.

End-user adoption is often cited as a key stumbling block in enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) implementations. But Microsoft is asserting that improvements in its Dynamics line of software will have users swooning with passion, not seething with frustration.

"About two years ago, I started making the claim within Dynamics not to just be the best in the industry, but really make something people love," said Jakob Nielsen, principal user experience manager for Dynamics, at the company's Convergence conference in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday.

The problem, as Nielsen noted, is that "when it comes to emotional connections with business software, it's not so positive most of the time. 'Hate' is probably the word used more often."

While users traditionally want their software to be usable and useful, Microsoft's research also considered a third factor: the seemingly elusive "desirability."

The Dynamics user experience team worked with students at the IT University of Copenhagen on "desirability studies" and to formulate a methodology it is calling "Feel IT."

Microsoft has been using visual design research techniques on groups of users, according to Nielsen. "We really needed some method where we could get people ... to express their emotions when they used the product," he said.

The process allows individuals to express their reactions after using Dynamics by choosing from an array of photographs: A man holding his head and screaming, teddy bears, a woman yawning. Microsoft believes much insight can be inferred from users' choices.

"Emotions are different for different people," Nielsen said. "That's really what drives us and interests us."

To that end, Microsoft has created more than 30 "role centers" for Dynamics AX 2009, due out later this year. These are views of the application tailored for a wide variety of user types.

Microsoft's desirability research echoes work by figures like Don Norman, creator of the "emotional design" concept.

One beta user of AX 2009 said there is substance behind Microsoft's hype.

"We think they really got it right on this one. Things really came together and we've got a lot of happy people," said John Elmer, vice president of information systems at Rodgers and Hammerstein.

The multiple-division company has complex business processes, as it represents an array of artists and productions, according to Elmer.

The role centers and tooling in the software make it easier for users to find relevant information and also shifts the load off IT, he added.

"We don't get requests for SQL queries to be pulled back for custom sets of data. People can do their own data mining. It's much faster, it's much more efficient," he said.

However, despite the wide range of role templates Microsoft has developed, customizations are still a reality, according to Elmer.

"People want more. We're early enough on that we're able to work with the out-of-the-box templates, but I fully expect within six weeks we'll be slammed with requests for [modifications]," he said. "Some of the stuff we've built on the front end is very specific to our installation. The out-of-the-box templates didn't include some of those tables and fields, so we added them."

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