No more screens, please!! – The best UI is NO UI

Posted by  Thomas Staven

The world of ERP has been all about screens. There is no end to the number of screens that have been made. In fact, it is only quite recently that they became somewhat useable and attractive.

These screens were developed with the idea in mind that all data capture needs to come from human input and the exact use of the same data also had to be specifically requested by a user, in front of a screen filled with fields, columns and rows. Basically, you entered data in the database via a screen that was almost an exact copy of the database table. When you wanted data back, you also got the data back in the same format. I`m exaggerating a bit - sometimes you also got it in a nice pie chart… only to have to drill down to the columns and rows to actually understand what the pie chart was all about.

I`m not saying that data is wrong, on the contrary data is good. We all know that an application needs data (and a lot of it) to be of any use. The question is how that data is captured. We don’t need old fashioned screens to put data in to applications or to get data out because today, data can be captured automatically from a plethora of sources.

What used to be documents are now electronic files that can be imported automatically into the systems using a web service. If something is still on paper (i.e. receipts) you can turn it into structured data by letting an OCR-engine process an image of it.

What used to be customer master data sitting isolated and pretty one-dimensional in an ERP/CRM system, can today be meshed up with almost an unlimited number of sources in the cloud that will enrich it and make it much more meaningful. Think of how a brand or a company’s reputation for delivering great service can be understood through what is said on social media.

Today, we don`t have to tell a timesheet system what we worked on at the end of the week. The data can be sourced automatically from the time assigned in our calendars. If we`re traveling throughout the week, we have a mobile device that tracks where we are, i.e. which customers and projects we are visiting (….a project is tied to a customer, a customer has an address, the mobile knows when we were at that address…) and can automatically populate our timesheet with that information.

Today, if you have been running an ERP for 10-20 years, you have lots of data and if you have a system with advanced analytical capabilities (with pattern recognition capabilities), you have the perfect set up to provide deep insights into which markets and projects you were successful with or not in the past so you can make informed decisions about which opportunities to go for or not. If you find the perfect reference project for your new project, creating the proposal for the new project with a draft project plan including who could work on the project – should literally just be a single click of a button.

So, the need for complex screens and processes are diminishing…fast….and because of that, we can deliver great user experiences. Even more exciting is that today's technology means we can start using "communication as a platform" to interact with applications.

There is absolutely no need for a traditional UI in the form of a screen with fields and columns or to get information from an application or invoke even advanced business functions. Applications can understand and learn natural language, allowing users to communicate with an application as you would with another colleague.

‪Unit4 is building its first Digital Assistant, Wanda, also called a virtual assistant, which is an application that can understand natural language‪. Because the communication feels natural and engaging, Wanda becomes another human user that can help you. Wanda even learns over time to understand you better as a user.

‪Wanda doesn't perform tasks itself, but understands what the user wants to do, and then initiates Agents or Bots to invoke the correct business functions. An Agent (also called an Intelligent Agent) or a Bot is a purpose built program that gathers information or performs services and will be quite specific in the sense that they are good at doing very specific things. These Agents will to a large degree be internal to Unit4 (we build them) because they need to know our business logic to give meaning (Unit4 is now building Time Agents, Travel & Expenses Agents, Workflow agents, Puchase Agents etc.) or they can be external Agents / Bots from other applications that we can utilize to provide more context and help to the user (I.e. the Time Agent can look at an Office 365 Calendar Agent) to gather time related information from both the ERP and the calendar to assemble a timesheet for the user.

In our case we have built Wanda, our Digital Assistant, ourselves but for the future we're thinking of integrating with other Digital Assistants as well (it could be Cortana from Microsoft or Siri from Apple). That way we can focus on making great Agents or Bots to cover all our business logic enabling our users to perform complex tasks via the intelligent self-learning Digital Assistants, our own or others. 

But, you still need a UI, right? You need to access Wanda via some form of an interface? Yes, but it’s here we`re embarking on a radical shift. We could build the UI for this ourselves (for example through a chat/messenger tool that could be deployed as an app on your mobile phone), but this time we`re not. Internally in Unit4, we've started to see that "the best UI can be someone else's UI" and we realize that an occasional user of a Business Application would most likely appreciate that he could use his favorite application, whatever that might be, to perform his tasks. 

So, we have made Wanda accessible through completely different UIs like Skype for Business, which is a very common enterprise collaboration tool and we`re now about to deploy Wanda into other applications as well like Slack.com and Facebook Messenger.

We strongly believe this is the future of Business Applications.

Peter Eckert, one of the founders of the leading design company Projekt202, says in a recent article published in UX Magazine:

We`re moving from a flat design to invisible design”… “People don’t realize yet how big and how powerful this experience thinking actually is. The ROI that’s embedded within is massive. If we develop meaningful, yet simple and intuitive experiences, our efforts to do so will be greatly reduced on all levels. Think of it: less R&D, less help and documentation, less training, less error and trial, more focused and shorter development cycles, higher NPS scores, better customer segmentation, higher talent retention, and happier customers.”

That is exactly what we want. To give our users and customers the best experience we can.

Thomas Staven

Thomas Staven

Thomas is passionately dedicated to technology innovation and delivering great experiences and business value to customers and has spent the last 16 years within Global R&D/Global Product Management and Global Sales at Unit4 in driving the ERP vendor's focus on delivering innovative enterprise solutions.

Currently Thomas is driving the Unit4 ERP strategy and working closely with the Innovation Lab as Product Strategist, all to deliver the future ERP and bring innovative technologies such as machine learning, AI, chat bots etc. to the world of Business Software.

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