It’s a common phenomenon with new technology: the public enthusiastically embraces the latest advances, while corporations wait years to
see if a new technology proves successful. In some ways, it is understandable. High development costs, employee training, and other factors
help to reinforce the status quo at large organizations. But on the flip side, the costs of lagging behind—particularly when technologies
deliver clear benefits—far outweigh the savings from doing nothing.
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The Year in RIAs: It’s Not Your Father’s Web
This has proven true again and again, from the early popularity of the Web to more recent technologies underlying interactive, intuitive
consumer products. Digital devices like the iPhone and iPod and Web applications such as YouTube and Facebook have won over hundreds of millions of
enthusiastic users worldwide, most of whom began using the devices and applications with no training.
In a few simple clicks, people are accessing immersive services, uploading and editing rich content, or initiating instant interactions with
people anywhere. Using traditional enterprise applications to provide the same functionality in a corporate setting can require lengthy
development cycles and discussions about rollout schedules, training, and overcoming resistance to adoption.
Fortunately, the gap between the richness and interactivity people experience using popular consumer applications and what they
experience at work is narrowing. A company’s employees and customers increasingly expect business applications to offer the same compelling
design and ease of use found in today’s consumer applications. In response, IT teams are looking to replace complicated, text-driven
application interfaces with much simpler, graphically rich user interfaces built on enterprise Rich Internet Applications (RIAs). Not only do the
visually engaging interfaces boost employee productivity but they also reduce training costs and accelerate adoption because the software is
more approachable and intuitive to use.
A History of Putting Function Before Form
It’s no secret that traditional enterprise applications have generally put function before finesse, even at the cost of usability. Corporations
had to choose between deploying difficult-to-manage desktop applications, enterprise applications with cryptic interfaces, or adopting largely
static Web applications that lacked power and flexibility. Because function is essential in business—with product development, revenues,
customer satisfaction, and other factors on the line—corporations sacrificed ease of use to get needed capabilities.
For employees, customers, and corporate shareholders alike, times are changing. New technologies can now combine the strengths of
Web and desktop applications into a single, easily managed application offering a more immersive, expressive user interface to support critical
business applications. And while the changes might seem purely ‘cosmetic,’ they deliver tangible returns, boosting employee productivity,
accelerating application adoption, strengthening customer service, and directly impacting an organization’s bottom line.
The result is that many IT teams are bringing a new design sense to enterprise applications, resulting in business applications that are more
compelling and a lot easier to use. Drag-and-drop functions, rich graphics, support for multiple content types, and other elements are becoming
increasingly common in enterprise applications.
The advantages are readily apparent. For example, by leveraging dynamic, online dashboards, managers at all levels can quickly evaluate
sales, employee performance, production schedules, and other areas for better decision-making. Also, improving the usability of customer
self-service applications can stop people from calling support centers for routine requests, saving employee time and money.
From System-centric to User-centric Design
Some of the first uses for RIAs in the enterprise focused on data visualization and decision support. Major providers of business
intelligence software such as SAP Business Objects offer customers visually driven dashboards that make it easy to aggregate, view, and
manipulate on a single interface large amounts of data from core operational systems. Information can be pulled from one or many enterprise
systems and presented in dynamic interfaces that require managers to do little more than drag-and-drop data from one area of the screen to
another and point and click to run analyses and generate reports.
The more intuitive enterprise RIAs accomplish several goals. First, they help overcome the obstacles of delivering information trapped in
corporate silos, enabling IT teams to aggregate data from anywhere and present it on a single screen on demand—regardless of which
computing platforms or computing devices managers use. Well-designed RIAs also work online or offline, run consistently across Web
browsers, and can be adapted to support varied end user devices, such as mobile phones. This means development costs can drop
substantially, while user access to services goes up.
Equally important, user experiences are transformed. Traditional enterprise systems can be big on transactional power but short on user
experience. RIAs bring a critical element of usability to enterprise systems. As a result, companies can spend less on training and better realize
the potential of enterprise applications by enabling everyone—occasional users, not just a few power users—to benefit from
information managed in those systems.
Raising the Standard for Citizen Services
At the London Borough Southwark, an innovative RIA integrated with SAP, Oracle, and other systems is helping the borough
cost-effectively and quickly provide residents with some of the United Kingdom’s most comprehensive and integrated government services.
Citizen inquiries can be as simple as requests for library cards and parking permits to more involved needs for employment assistance.
The innovative organization recognizes that delivering more responsive citizen services goes beyond putting basic forms online. “Although
we continue to encourage customers to use cheaper methods to contact us, it is not just about directing citizens to our Web site for self
service,” explains Dominic Cain, head of client services in Southwark. “We wanted to find ways to work smarter and reduce unnecessary
contact, thereby helping to address the high volume of citizen requests we receive. With more than 256,000 borough residents and thousands
of requests coming in daily, this was no easy task.”
To support processes dependent upon citizen input and data-driven forms, the borough partnered with Vangent Limited, an established
U.K. services and technology provider, to devise and deploy the powerful One Touch system. Using a combination of the Adobe Flash
Platform and LiveCycle ES solutions, One Touch automates the process of registering citizens for services.
“By taking a more integrated approach to processing service requests, we can look holistically at the needs of citizens and address all
service opportunities in one interaction,” explains Cain. The borough’s efforts have been a success. The service model developed with Vangent
and implemented by Vangent customer service staff is reducing the reliance on manual, paper-based processes and setting new standards for
responsive, efficient service delivery. It has also already assisted saving the borough more than $1.7 million dollars in just a few years.
In some cases, benefits forms for unemployment insurance and other services can now be completed by Southwark in less than a day, as
opposed to the weeks required at other agencies. “This is a big leap in the quality and efficiency of our services,” says Cain. “Instead of having
a resident call or come in five or six times, requests can be managed in one call, with all data captured accurately in relevant systems.”
Lightweight Infrastructure, Heavyweight Functionality
Across industries, enterprise RIAs are bringing new efficiencies and value to business processes. For instance, as part of an integrated
health information system (HIS), enterprise RIAs streamline everything from scheduling and billing to ordering drugs, managing lab tests, and
tracking inventory. The aim is to simplify as many employee-facing activities as possible, freeing staff to focus more time on direct patient care.
Like enterprise applications in other industries, health information systems are complex and touch an array of users and other back-end
systems. The systems need to be powerful enough to drive a huge volume of routine transactions—ordering lab tests, managing patient
charts, and other activities—as well as be flexible enough to support unique requirements of user communities. For example, in the
Middle East, physicians write orders for drugs and patients often must pay for them before they can be dispensed, requiring special processing
and tracking workflows for healthcare providers in that region. In China, nurses must validate any drug order, so the same system needs to be
able to accommodate those providers.
Beyond unique user requirements of health information systems, there are also other challenges long familiar to IT professionals. User
interfaces need to be delivered in multiple languages, while supporting different currencies and calendar presentations. And of course, system
availability and functionality remain paramount, because the primary users in this case are nurses and doctors working in fast-paced
environments where mistakes can have disastrous consequences.
For this type of application, an enterprise RIA is ideal. The more dynamic, intuitive interface simplifies accessing and ordering services for
technical and non-technical users alike. Also critical, a variety of development tools are available to accelerate creating and deploying RIAs
integrated with enterprise systems, making it easy for IT administrators to add new functionality in response to changing government regulations
or user demands.
Cost-effective, Quality Application Development
Integral to enabling organizations to change the experience of using business applications is driving down development costs. In the past,
building visually driven applications required costly collaboration between designers and developers. Today, collaboration between application
designers and developers is increasing thanks to new tools. Designers can come up with compelling user interface concepts that can be
transformed instantly to functional models. Developers can leverage the functional design, saving development time, and focus on integration
with servers and services.
Today, enterprise RIAs are being developed for a range of applications, from corporate training to human resources to customer sales and
support activities. Regardless of the application, end users expect to see more than simple lines of text or static images appearing on their
screens. Instead, these applications should include video, dynamic charts, multimedia content, and other elements that bring greater clarity,
interactivity, and value to user experiences.
For corporations, the benefits extend beyond boosting employee productivity and increasing customer satisfaction. By integrating RIAs
with enterprise systems, organizations are realizing a much greater ROI on their original (often substantial) investments in those systems.
Payback periods drop, while savings accrue from better decision making, reduced training costs, and other factors.
Start Simple, Build on Success
Rather than starting with the largest, most complex processes, many companies wanting to integrate RIAs with enterprise systems start
small, looking at a particular area of their business that is underperforming. It could be as straightforward as finding a better approach to
managing employee travel or time off requests. Or, it could involve the more challenging, multi-step processes that organizations like the
London Borough of Southwark are automating.
In any case, application development has to address not only what needs to be accomplished but also how users can best complete those
activities—prompting a clearer focus on the impact of design on enterprise applications. No longer relegated to entertainment or popular
consumer applications, rich, dynamic interfaces and immersive experiences are making their way into sales, finance, service, and other
applications integral to a company’s success. The impacts are evident on a company’s bottom line, as well as on employees and customers,
who find it easier and often more satisfying to quickly get what they need done.
David Wadhwani, as the General Manager and Vice President of the Platform Business Unit at Adobe Systems, oversees the
business and development of Adobe’s Flash platform.