Friday, April 1, 2011

Appearance Does Count: The Importance of User Interfaces for ERP Systems

by Steve Krok

A distributor’s ERP software is a treasure trove of data. As a system of record, it serves as an electronic file repository, historically tracking business events in great detail. Distributors have seen those systems of record go through many makeovers over the past 30 years. But as software providers scrambled to create new systems and improve on their existing platforms, they often created functionality with a clunky front end that had good data, but was difficult to interact with.

What the user interacts with is commonly called the user interface or UI. While UIs have recently taken leaps in making a user more efficient, if you look back to when many distributors last made an ERP system upgrade, this was not the case. The old systems of record had solid business rules for archiving data, but the UI suffered.

The resulting frustration of the employees was obvious, as the UI forced them to learn an entirely new language to communicate with the system in order to do their jobs. Repetitious tasks like Sales Order Entry, Cash Receipts and Stock Receipts had a flow to them that, on the face of it, was very cumbersome to the actual user. Getting employees to learn and use the interface was often a major milestone in the implementation of the ERP solution.

In more recent times, the technology world moved rapidly to create interfaces that were easy to understand and mirrored the lifestyle of the end user. Graphical UIs are getting better, faster and more intuitive. These days, a new hire is more likely to be familiar with the look and feel of a Windows-style graphical interface than traditional character-based screens. What young employee hasn’t seen or even played with graphical applications from Apple, Google, and Verizon?

The question falls to the IT manager within a distribution company using an older UI (whether or not the actual ERP is updated): does a graphical interface really make a difference? Based on our experience working with existing and potential customers, it absolutely does. According to one longtime customer who recently upgraded to a graphical interface, his new hires are trained more quickly and on the floor sooner than ever. They make fewer mistakes, as the newer UI is more intuitive as to how they do their jobs. They ask fewer questions about how to perform tasks, and expect the software to tell them what to do next.

Since the supply chain directly links the distributor to vendors and customers, the UI needs to touch these parties, as well. You wouldn’t expect a customer who’s surfing a Web site researching material and ordering product to interface differently than your employees do. Web sites that customers must interact with should have that same look, feel and ease of use that they expect from the Internet. Keeping the minds of your employees and customers “on the same page” by using similar tools also enhances the bond between them.

There is no doubt that having a robust system of record is paramount to ensure the archived data is recorded and stored properly. But without an equally good user interface to engage your audiences, that database is like a buried treasure chest. It’s just not being used to its fullest potential.

Steve Krok is an Industry Segment Manager at Activant. Find out more about Activant at distribution.activant.com or call 1-800-776-7438.

2 comments:

  1. 20-30 year old employees have never even experienced a DOS or Character Based Interface - and my guess is once they do they will wish they had not.

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  2. I love Prelude's slash command system. With it, I never have to take my hands off the keyboard like I would with a Windows-like front end. I work in Excel quite a bit, and the requirement to move back and forth between a mouse and keyboard is inefficient. We find if we hire intelligent employees, they have no problem expanding their horizons from the Windows world. I don't know why Activant bought Prelude if they think it is lousy software. The service from Activant is certainly worse than it was when Prelude was independent.

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