User Experience in EPM - the Host Analytics EPM Platform

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This post is the third in a three-part series on the topic of user experience (UX), where I’ll help you to understand the role of product design and user experience in the creation and evolution of the Host Analytics Enterprise Performance Platform and how it affects you, the buyer or user of EPM solutions.  

Lesson 1 of this series talked about the role of design and the metric of user experience. Lesson 2 focused on design for digital products, particularly software products and those used specifically by organizations to conduct business operations. (Miss one or both of the first two lessons? Read Lesson 1 here, or get up caught up on the series with Lesson 2 here.)

In this post, the third lesson, I will focus on the software category of enterprise performance management (EPM) in general and the EPM products of Host Analytics in particular. First, let’s briefly review what EPM is.

 EPM in a Nutshell

The business software known as enterprise resource planning (ERP), dominated by industry giants SAP and Oracle and their end-to-end portfolio of applications and databases, has been said to provide the “nervous systems” for large organizations. ERP applications provide automated support for operational business processes.  These are the repeatable, day-to-day things businesses do to manage their ongoing operations. ERP application modules exist for managing almost every business function:

  • Purchasing and Accounts Payable
  • Billing and Collections, Accounts Receivable
  • Fixed Asset Management
  • Product LIne Management
  • General Ledger Accounting  

So while ERP applications are focused on running operations, EPM applications help manage performance of the enterprise.  EPM applications help organizations link their strategies to plans and execution. That includes the monitoring and comparison of results with goals and plans regardless of what things or processes are being tracked.

EPM is about measurement

EPM is all about measurement. It compares what happened to what was planned to happen.

The EPM Design Challenge

A complete EPM platform, such as that provided by Host Analytics, enables the full five-stage performance management cycle:

  1. Planning of resource allocations against organizational goals.
  2. Consolidating financial and operational performance results.
  3. Reporting actual results or outcomes as compared to plans and objectives.
  4. Analyzing the reasons behind the outcomes.
  5. Modeling possible future business options and associated outcomes.

Organizations report and analyze their performance using different scenarios, or versions, of the data. Scenarios can depict various views of what has happened and what could happen.

The simplest scenario is to depict "what" has already happened. If we want to understand how our company performed last year, we compare the actual scenario (facts about how we performed, measured in consolidated, quantifiable terms like sales, COGS, operating expenses, etc.) with the target scenario (what we started out wanting to achieve) – and perhaps what we had imagined as the worst and best outcomes deemed possible.

If we want to know more about "why" we performed better or worse than we had planned, we can analyze our consolidated financial results for clues to what went right or wrong. For example, if sales in the US were below our target, can our data reveal patterns of performance that allow us to diagnose the problem? Did certain regions or states underperform? Did certain product lines underperform? If in response we make operational planning adjustments for improvement in the coming year, based on outcomes derived from our "what if" models, we can track progress with periodic performance reports.

The role product design plays in enabling this business process has several facets. Perhaps the most obvious is the effort to present the various aspects of the process within a single, coherent, and consistent platform environment.

Perhaps history’s first EPM platform environment was installed for Chilean dictator Salvador Allende in 1973. Called Cybersyn, its workings were primarily manual. Graphic designers made slides daily with national economic performance data, for viewing on-demand in a creepy situation room. It failed primarily because, by the time performance news had been produced for executive consumption, it was already known through less formal channels.

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Salvador Allende’s Cybersyn national economic performance viewing room.

UX Design for the Host Analytics Platform

The Host Analytics EPM platform is widely recognized for its depth and breadth of capabilities, reflected in its inclusion in both of Gartner’s corporate performance management Magic Quadrants for Strategic CPM and Financial CPM. In 2015, we added resources and focus to upgrade, clarify, and streamline how this platform is presented to those who use it. We first focused on the product’s appearance and are now moving more into its behavior, content, and functionality.

Successful products follow through on their brand’s promise by giving it appropriate and representative form. The platform’s continuity, which provides single-source access and interoperability between all five activities in the performance management cycle, is reflected in its appearance and behavior.

As you can see from the images further below, our solution looks different from the older personal computer operating systems shown in Lesson 2 of this series. They reflect a software appearance design trend called flat design, whose simplicity is in part a reaction to the bandwidth, performance, and rendering limitations of web and mobile products. Microsoft’s Metro design language is a good example.

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 An example of Flat Design: Microsoft’s Metro UI design language (Wikipedia)

Designers quickly realized that, because of the market’s growing familiarity with software, they were free from the compulsion to make software UIs look and work as if they were tiny physical worlds. Flat design actually brings software UIs closer to the leaner styling traditions of graphic design and away from simulating the three-dimensional world of product design and architecture. Because most software content consists of words, images, and numbers versus physical objects and spatial orientation/manipulation, this is appropriate.

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Host Analytics EPM icons, reflecting “flat design.” Module navigation, object icons in context, toolbar icons, and object/status icons.

The set of Host Analytics icons above reflects the influence of flat design. Icons, as well as key buttons and navigation selection indicators, reflect a customer-selected theme color. Shown is the default blue. We emphasize iconic representations for the set of system objects. Objects are the virtual “things” that finance organizations work with – such as business units, reports, plans, employees, processes, and aggregations of these. Just as with the file icons in an operating system, giving objects a picture to go with their names makes their type easier to identify.

The before/after images below demonstrate the work we have done to improve the appearance, or “look,” of the product, to clarify titles/terminology/iconography, and to improve several common interaction behaviors. The screen shown is used by managers to locate, edit, and track the status of their operational plans.

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 Host Analytics’ Budget Control Panel, circa 2015.

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Host Analytics’ Planning Control Panel, 2017. Greystar Real Estate Partners is a Host Analytics customer.

The appearance changes evident above have been implemented consistently across the platform. Now that they are mostly complete, we’re shifting our focus to behavioral improvements across the platform. We’re also adding significant net new functionality in the areas of modeling, process and workflow management, and charting.

The Future

Host Analytics plans to further improve the quality of its platform user experience by systematically adopting a state-of-the-art commercial software component library for the construction of its product user interface. These libraries are provided for use by major vendors, such as Google and Microsoft, as well as by smaller companies, for purchase or by license agreement. Component libraries are collections of pre-configured parts used to assemble a UI. Having been designed and built from scratch to fit and work together to create a harmonious whole, they accelerate UI development for the more conventional aspects of a digital product, such as window frames, icons, buttons, toolbars, error messages, etc.

Using commercial component libraries to build a software UI is sort of like shopping at IKEA, versus at more traditional housewares stores like Sears or Home Depot, or even building your own furniture from scratch. While each of these stores provides wide ranges of typical household products, those from IKEA are all designed to work well together as a system, both physically and stylistically. Although you may not prefer IKEA’s default minimalist, modern styling or its wide use of fiberboard materials, at least you know that purchased items will always match and use similar construction and assembly hardware.

As for Host Analytics’ software product design plans, we don’t intend to re-invent the more routine parts of our enterprise software UI. We aren’t in the business of providing enterprise UI frameworks, but rather of providing EPM software solutions. Our plan is to choose a simple, proven, state-of-the-art library to cover the foundation elements and controls for our hundreds of screens. Google, for example, provides a software component library adhering to its design language called Material Design.

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Sample UI controls from Google’s Material Design component library (Wikipedia).

Using a library framework will ensure quality and consistent appearance and behavior for software’s equivalent of a house’s doorknobs, cabinets, faucets, walls, and floors. If we cannot find a standard library component to perform a specialized role, we can customize it into what we want.

This will free us up to apply our innovation energies where they are most valuable, in three categories:

1. Render the best possible representations for the content that makes up a customer’s EPM implementation

Host Analytics Platform EPM content is comparable to the files and other data that we store on our personal computers, and to the ways that these files are organized and interconnected. Above, I mentioned our use of icons to represent the various types of EPM objects, such as reports, plans, dashboards, users, formulas, etc. This makes them easier to locate and identify in the UI. Also important are what we call inspection views: dedicated screens for showing and editing all properties of an EPM object.

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Partial view of a concept, in development at Host Analytics: An “inspection view” of a model Dimension.

Our strategy is for the content container – the window frames, buttons, scrollbars, etc. – to quietly recede, while the content itself, in its unique arrangements and forms, becomes the focus. The appearance is less about Host Analytics and more about the customer’s EPM content.

2. Orchestrate ideal default combinations and arrangements of standard library components while ensuring they’re configurable to suit the unique needs of EPM customers and their users.

Just like kitchens can be designed to optimize access to the stove, refrigerator, sink, and storage with the minimum steps and reach, page layouts and inter-related modules can be arranged and connected to make the completion of a software task seem effortless. Deciding how pages are laid out, what they present, and what they do is central to the UI design task. We seek to provide the most usable layouts for the most use cases.

3. Create new components, specific to EPM, that do things never done before

We are inventing new features and forms that show content and relationships in powerful new ways. These innovations will break new ground in providing insights and efficiencies specific to EPM. We will talk more about these when they become available. But in general, we see opportunities to make the modeling experience much more intuitive and visual, to make the design and execution of workflow processes much simpler, and to make business status much more accessible through the graphic visualization of data.

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Partial view of a concept, in development at Host Analytics, for depicting models and their relationships using “cards” arranged in a “map.”

You can think of our strategy as using IKEA for staple household items, but alongside a luxury couch, entertainment system, tricked-out chef’s kitchen, and craft-built dining table that are state-of-the-art and representative of a unique purpose and aesthetic.

In addition to these initiatives, is the ongoing effort to optimize the usability of current functionality. Our team listens to customer input from various sources, including our support team (called Customers for Life, or CFL), the Host Analytics Community, usability tests conducted with users from our customer base, and our own intuition as designers and financial business process experts.

Conclusion

Digital Product designers are architects of virtual spaces and the tools presented within them. These are not real-world or fantasy replicas common to games or virtual communities, but rather worlds of synthetic, abstract information forms used to do work. Just as when we enter our homes, we occupy these spaces whenever we enter our devices to edit a document, shop online, or traverse a business application to complete a task.

Software is formless, malleable, boundless, and evolving. EPM products don’t (yet) represent the avant-garde of user experience. However, Host Analytics is committed to providing an application platform UX of comparable quality to any major application provider – and to providing a proprietary user experience of content and functionality superior to that of any EPM vendor in the industry.

If you liked this series on user experience design for EPM and want to learn more, check out my recent book, “Bringing Numbers to Life: LAVA and Design-Led Innovation in Visual Analytics.” You can read it for free online or buy a hard copy. Book-related demonstrations, documents, videos, and other materials are available here.  And if you would like to see a live demonstration of the Host Analytics platform, register for one of our weekly Live Demo sessions. 

Register for a Live Demo

Posted by on March 23, 2017
Topics: EPM
John Armitage

John Armitage is a strategic digital product designer and design practice leader. Since entering the software industry in the early '90s, he has performed principal designer and team/practice leadership roles in various consulting and development organizations. Since 2002 he has worked in the enterprise software arena, with user experience design teams at Peoplesoft, BusinessObjects, SAP, and Host Analytics. In six years at SAP, John designed new product and business concepts related to cloud computing, social media, collaboration, business networks, and visual analytics. He studied liberal arts, graphic design, and business at Miami University in Ohio, and earned his MFA in graphic design from Rhode Island School of Design.

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