by David Wadhwani

Building the Best of Consumer Apps into Enterprise Apps

Jul 21, 200910 mins
Enterprise Applications

The gap between the richness and interactivity people experience using popular consumer applications and what they experience at work is narrowing.

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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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.