Adding Functionality and Value Too
At its annual user conference Macola Evolve 2017 in New Orleans (April 20, 2017), Exact unveiled Macola 10.5. Much of the new release of its enterprise resource planning (ERP) software is focused on enhancing the usability of the software with new tablet-led user interfaces, “aligning with how and where manufacturing and wholesale distribution customers use the software on a day-to-day basis.” While new user interfaces are often just about screen navigation and visual appeal, the new usability features of Macola 10.5 add more than just a pretty new face. They make existing functionality more visible and accessible, while also adding new functionality. Will Macola users fall into the typical trap of resisting change or will they welcome it with open arms? It’s all about perceived value.
Overcoming Resistance to Change
It is not uncommon today for ERP solution providers to be transforming the user experience. In fact, it is almost a necessity. After all, the millennial generation grew up with technology in the palms of their hands. The concept of a user manual is as foreign to them as vinyl records and turntables. But with the introduction of so many consumer applications on mobile devices, even Baby Boomers have succumbed to the siren call of mobile technology and have become much more demanding of user interfaces. It’s called “the consumerization of IT” and it is a very real phenomenon. We demand truly intuitive screens and touch technology.
But this isn’t the first time user interfaces have undergone a transformation. Those of us in the older generation remember the “green screens” of yesteryear. And we also remember how difficult it was to get the users to abandon those green screens in favor of a graphical user interface (GUI). When GUIs were first introduced in a major release, if you asked a typical user, “What was the hardest part of the upgrade to the new release?” the answer was almost universally, “The new user interface.” It was a real struggle to get the users to abandon the devil they knew. But if you asked the follow on question, “What was the best value delivered with the upgrade?” the answer was almost universally, “The new user interface.” Even though transitions were tough, they proved worth the effort.
So what have we learned from this prior transition? The key to overcoming resistance is to add value. Even if you hate the existing user interface, once you get used to it, it is indeed the devil you know. But if the new user interface is just different, adds nothing new, doesn’t solve a problem, then you can’t blame the user for resisting.
Personal experience at the Macola Evolve event provides us with an analogy. The event was held at the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street in New Orleans, right on the border of the French Quarter. A popular location for events of this size, I had been to several located in this 41-story hotel, but they were all held 15+ years ago. Since then, the Sheraton had installed new “smart” elevators. These smart elevators had a new “user interface.” Instead of just pressing the up or down arrow, you entered the floor you wanted to go to as you were calling the elevator. This eliminated the need for any buttons inside the elevator itself. I loved them.
Interestingly one of the main stage presenters at the event, a Chief Information Officer (CIO) at a manufacturer of consumer products, bemoaned this new elevator user interface. He hated it. He wanted the old buttons back inside the car.
Why did this CIO resist them, while I embraced them? Well, for one thing, it provided him with a tongue-in-cheek example of how IT projects would go so much more smoothly if it weren’t for the users. Just kidding, but put something new in front of them, and they are likely to baulk. I would partially agree, but only if what you put in front of them doesn’t immediately solve a problem or add real value. I loved the new elevators because they solved a problem I had recently experienced.
The previous week I was at an event with sessions on three different floors of a hotel. Not only did the hotel not have enough elevators, they didn’t provide any access to stairs (so no work-around). This caused a severe bottleneck. But as one elevator was filled and more people wanted to get on, they couldn’t just press the up or down button because that would cause the doors of the filled car to reopen. They had to wait until it was away to call the next one. And there was no way to organize the group by destination so every elevator stopped at every floor.
With the smart elevator, each passenger could enter his or her destination in advance. This not only allowed the elevator(s) to optimize the routes, often making them express to a particular floor, but never recalled a full elevator car. And a new one was coming before the full one was away.
The CIO’s perception: they took away my buttons. My perception: they made the elevators smart and my ride faster. There are two lessons here. The first to the CIO: Never introduce a new upgrade without being able to convey the value. The second to the solution provider: It’s not enough to just put a pretty face on the software. Make it do more.
Is Macola 10.5 Adding Value?
Macola 10.5 does have a pretty new face. The look and feel is a radical departure from prior releases. The goals from a visual perspective were to strive for clarity, avoiding clutter. And yet users tend to want and need lots of data for insights and decision-making. Power users in particular are likely to ask for more and more data at their fingertips. But the more you add to the screen, the longer it takes a user to react and respond.
Exact has reconciled these two apparently contradictory needs with something called “progressive disclosure.” Simply put, make that added data available, but hide it until you press the little arrow that signals you want more. Progressive disclosure adds more functionality to any particular screen without necessarily adding clutter.
This is particularly important as users move from desktops and laptops to tablets and even smart phones. It’s called “responsive design.” Exact starts with a tablet-first design. A tablet is more constrained in size. Size and fonts, use of color and contrast become more important for visual clarity, along with the ability to collapse or expand sections to take better advantage of the real estate on the screen. A tablet has touch access, but no mouse. Think about how you often use a mouse today to hover over a field to get more information. No mouse, no hover. That hover is a sort of search and help mechanism.
Therefore the way you search needs to change. Think about texting or typing on your smart phone. Once you start typing the word, it gives you suggestions for finishing it. Do you ever miss that when you are typing a document or accessing ERP from your desktop or laptop? Of course you do. You will start to miss it even more when you get used to Macola 10.5 giving you similar suggestions. Start typing a customer name in order entry and Macola 10.5 will show you a list of who you might be looking for, just like your email does when you start typing an email address with which you have communicated previously.
Macola 10.5 is not only striving for clarity, but combining the best features of your different worlds – smart phone, tablet, laptop, email, ERP, etc. – whether you are at your desk or on the move. The goal is to preserve the power of the solution while reducing the complexity of how you interact with the solution and the data.
What Users Want
These added bits of functionality bring value just like the smart elevator brings speed and efficiency. But if usability is the ultimate goal, do these efforts align with what users want? The 2017 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study asked survey participants to select the top three most important elements of ease of use (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Most Important Elements of Ease of Use (top 3 selected)
Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study
We find speed and efficiency at the very top of the list. Macola 10.5’s progressive disclosure, device independence, type-ahead search that requires less data to be entered, infinite scrolling and sort-able table columns all speak to speed and efficiency.
Of course with intuitive navigation, second on the list, the proof is in putting your hands on it. If you are an Exact customer or prospect, ask for a demo. But don’t be content to watch one of the Macola experts demonstrate the new user interface. Of course it seems intuitive when you are watching someone who’s done it about a million times. You will only know if it is intuitive if you try to use it with little or no instruction. We think the software will speak for itself, but you need to be the judge.
Third on our list is “Easy access from anywhere, any time.” Loosely translated, this means cloud. Cloud brings tremendous value, but cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) brings more. What’s the difference?
- Cloud refers to access to computing, software and storage of data over a network (generally the Internet.) You may have purchased a license for the software and installed it on your own computers or those owned and managed by another company, but your access is through the Internet and therefore through the “cloud,” whether private or public.
- SaaS is exactly what is implied by the acronym. Software is delivered only as a service. It is not delivered on a CD or other media to be loaded on your own (or another’s) computer. It is generally paid for on a subscription basis and does not reside on your computers at all.
All SaaS is cloud computing, but not all cloud computing is SaaS. Traditional on-premise or hosted solutions might (or might not) be accessed via the cloud, although this is more likely to be a private cloud.
We could write volumes on the benefits of cloud and/or SaaS. For many, cost savings are the prime advantage. Beyond cost considerations, the other types of possible benefits include:
- More innovation through more frequent updates
- Better support of distributed environments and remote workforces
- Risk mitigation
Macola has been available to run in the cloud for a long time. Everything demonstrated at Macola Evolve 2017 was running in Microsoft Azure.
And finally, rounding out the top four most important elements of ease of use is “Does what I need it to do easily and naturally.” This was a primary goal of Macola 10.5. “In any given day, our customers may be on the shop or warehouse floor managing operations, out of the office visiting customers or suppliers, or sourcing new materials. The latest update to our ERP and business software is focused on empowering users to more efficiently and seamlessly access the information they need to do their jobs, wherever they are at the time,” said Derek Ochs, director of development, Exact, Macola division. “With Macola 10.5, we are matching our software to the way our customers do their jobs. In the end, if Macola is truly doing its own job, the user hardly knows the software is there.”
Beyond Macola 10.5
Of course Exact will continue to develop its road map for Macola. But in addition it is also experimenting with a new “hackathon” approach. Periodically it takes teams of developers across all divisions of Exact and allows them to work on any new idea they might come up with, encouraging them to be creative and courageous. This can result in some pretty cool stuff that may or may not ever get into the product.
One that we think is very likely to make it in is a new login screen that uses facial recognition. Think about collecting transactions on a shop floor. Seldom does every worker have his or her own device for data entry to collect hours worked and quantity completed. At the lunch break or the end of a shift, are they queued up to record a half or full day of work? If so, wouldn’t it be great if they could just walk up to a screen and the system would automatically recognized them, log them in and maybe even bring up the production order in process? How much time and aggravation would that save?
Or how about a Macola Chat Bot (based on Microsoft’s bot engine) to do basic things in Macola just by chatting with it using Skype? Perhaps this might be an alternative user interface for occasional users so they don’t have to understand the system in order to get data and answers from it. Or how about a preferences engine that might suggest other items that are likely to be purchased as you add a line item in order entry?
These are just a few examples of sprint-like projects that are being conceived and developed through these hackathons. None of these are out of the realm of possibility with technology available today. Perhaps the biggest stumbling block to moving forward with these potential innovations is a lack of familiarity, and therefore appreciation for what technology can do today.
In our 2017 Mint Jutras Enterprise Solution Study we selected 14 different kinds of technology and asked respondents to assess their level of familiarity with each in terms of how they relate (or not) to their business. All respondents were asked about all 14, even though we realize some are more relevant to some industries than to others. Those shaded in the lighter green are primarily applicable to those making and/or moving a physical product, while those in the darker green are likely to be applied more universally (Table 1).
Table 1: How familiar are you with these technologies as they relate (or not) to your business?
Source: Mint Jutras 2017 Enterprise Solution Study
Adoption rates are still quite low and in many instances, those that have little or no familiarity outnumber those that understand it well. So in many cases Exact can’t rely on its customers to ask for these features. But even if customers aren’t pushing in this direction, perhaps Exact can pull them along, potentially transforming businesses as it does.
Macola 10.5 brings some added new features and functions along with its pretty new face. These include:
- A newly re-architected tablet-led user interface that uses size and fonts, color and contrast or added visual clarity, along with the ability to collapse or expand sections to take better advantage of the real estate on the screen
- Progressive disclosure, keeping added detail (clutter) hidden until needed
- Responsive design of software, which behaves differently depending on the device in use
- Special search capabilities that ask the question as you type, “Did you mean…?”
- Intuitive screens (but don’t take our word for it, see for yourself)
- Available in the cloud
These are exciting times for the developers at Exact. If you are a customer, share in their excitement. If you are considering replacing your current ERP solution, Macola is definitely worth a look. Dive in to Macola 10.5 to see what you are missing.