Oracle Usable Apps | Applications User Experience Simplicity, mobility, extensibility
   
 
Fusion Applications: The New Standard for the Complete User Experience
 
Customer Site Visits Establish Foundation for Oracle Fusion Applications

 

Kathy Miedema

Author: Deanna Novak, Oracle Applications User Experience
Co-author: Kathy Miedema, Oracle Applications User Experience
November 10, 2010




We couldn’t have built Oracle Fusion Applications without our customers. We are Applications User Experience, the group within Oracle that works to ensure Oracle applications are user-friendly and fit customer needs. A major part of the team’s primary focus during the past several years has been working on Oracle’s next generation of enterprise applications, Fusion.

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Photo by Martin Taylor, Oracle Applications User Experience

Sam Rajkumar, left, a senior usability engineer for Oracle’s Applications UX team, takes notes as a user demonstrates how she uses her computer applications during her daily routine.

In order to advocate for application users during the design process, the user experience (UX) team worked hard to gather as much customer input and feedback as possible, using a variety of methods, so that we really got to know our customers and their work environments. For instance, we regularly asked customers to tell us about themselves through interviews and surveys, and we also invited them into the lab to look at early designs and prototypes of products so that they could give us feedback about how those designs would work for them.

One technique that stands out as yielding the richest understanding of the user experience of our customers is the customer site visit. This technique is exactly as it sounds: Oracle sends a team of usability engineers, interaction designers, and product managers to a customer’s work site, where they observe customers -- in their offices, in warehouses, in labs, and anywhere else where they perform their jobs using Oracle applications. The philosophy behind the technique is that people and their actions are best understood in the context in which they dwell, and thus the best way to gain a holistic understanding of them is to directly observe their actions where and when they naturally occur. Customer site visits begin building the foundation for our products even before the first design is drawn.

Getting Ready to Build Fusion Applications

In preparation for Fusion, Applications UX specialists spent more than 1,500 hours at customer sites, so that we could see firsthand the challenges and needs that Oracle users faced during their daily work routines. Customer site visits are typically an intense three to five days of continuous research.

Through site visits, user experience professionals often discover customer pain points in using applications to perform various tasks, such as being overloaded with information in trying to complete a task. These pain points are captured in reports, and the team works to alleviate these issues in designs.

Katie Candland, Director of Fusion Applications User Experience, describes what a typical site visit entails: “We are usually gone for a week. We’ll fly out on a Monday, meet and greet Monday afternoon, and start all of the research activities. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we’re cramming in as much as possible. And then, in the evenings, the balance is trying to look at the notes to make sure we captured everything and also attend dinners with the customer. Then, on Friday, there might be a short morning wrap-up with the key people who helped us organize at the site, and then back home.”

Despite the hectic schedule, Candland attests to the benefits of these visits. “I think it is worth it, especially if you are planning ahead so that you use the time at the customer site wisely.” She said site visits lead to a deeper understanding of the domains where Oracle applications are used. “They show our customer’s pain points, which we always want to solve with each new release. The visits also allow us to observe places where we can optimize — they give us ideas for innovation.”

Insights from Site Visits

Andrew Gilmour, a senior usability engineer who participated in several of Oracle’s Fusion site visits, said the visits help to concentrate development efforts and to solve the real problems that customers face. “When you are on-site and you see what users actually have to go through just to accomplish, say, a simple task, it really brings it home that we do have the room to improve,” Gilmour said.

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Photo by Martin Taylor, Oracle Applications User Experience

Chad Sampanes, a senior usability engineer for Oracle, observes an applications user at a warehouse site during a customer site visit.

Gilmour said he visited one customer who had to rely on multiple proprietary systems in addition to Oracle. “Accomplishing even one business process requires the user to go in and out of different systems and applications instead of having a unified source.” This type of experience and insight has been instrumental in guiding the development of Fusion.

Because Fusion’s design has been so motivated by these on-site experiences, when Gilmour recently returned to the site to demonstrate the Fusion User Interface, he said he was able to come back to those customers with an attitude that said, “We really went out and listened to you guys, and this is what we heard. What we’ve done with this new UI really addresses your issues and frustrations.”

It would be dangerous to base Oracle’s product designs too heavily on insights gained through only one or a couple of customer site visits, since Oracle’s customers are a diverse group who have very different business models and needs. Keeping this in mind, the Applications UX team carefully planned customer site visits in order to include companies of various sizes, locations, and industries -- ensuring that the design direction of Fusion would not be biased to any one type of organization. To capture such diversity meant visiting customers who together represented several industry segments. Oracle visited food distributors, wineries, technology giants, drug manufacturers, and more, and traveled to locations that ranged from California to China, from businesses on the East Coast to businesses in Europe, and from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere.

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Graphic illustration by Eric Stilan, Oracle Applications User Experience

This user persona describes the characteristics of someone who occupies a particular user role, which assists user experience engineers and designers as they develop new or improved work flows in enterprise applications.

An Applications UX senior usability engineer who has participated in site visits, Dilip Chetan, explained the benefits of visiting sites across a range of industries and locations. “If the objective is to prepare a user experience road map and to spell out overarching goals on what the product needs to address, site visits definitely go a long way.” He said visiting a variety of sites validates commonalities across industries, while also enlightening Oracle about needs that are unique to specific industries.

Site Visit Deliverables

Gilmour’s work and Chetan’s work offer only a glimpse of the insights Oracle has gained from customer sites. A typical report from a site visit contains much more. At each site, Oracle learns about the people who occupy various roles, and uses that information to create user profiles.

We pay attention to a user’s typical tasks and the steps he takes to complete them. We learn about requirements that are specific to that organization, given its size, industry, or other unique characteristics, and we listen to pain points described from various levels in the organization. Using all of this information, we create deliverables in many forms, including task flows, user profiles, pictures of worker artifacts, and depictions of pain points. We rely on these things as a library to reference and guide us throughout the various phases of product design.

Building Relationships with Customers

In addition to helping Oracle build better products, site visits by the Applications UX team also strengthen Oracle’s relationship with customers. Without customers, site visits would not be possible, and Oracle products would not benefit from the wealth of insight that they yield. Fortunately, Oracle’s customers recognize the value in partnering with us to influence the next generation of products.

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A task flow is a depiction of the steps that users take to accomplish one task. Task flows can act as a guide for designers in matching the design of the application to the work flow of the user. They can also suggest opportunities for innovation if there is a way that users can combine steps or take fewer steps to complete a work flow.

Candland calls that relationship key to Oracle’s success. “Working with customers in their environment is really important for the general relationship that we build with them. They are able to give their input directly to the user experience team -- the people who are responsible for making their user experience better.”

She said the relationship continues after the visit and throughout the design process. These customers continue to see and provide feedback about the designs as they move from low-fidelity wireframes to interactive prototypes through subsequent user research activities. Further, these customers often get previews and are asked to come on board for different activities, where they move beyond demonstrations and actually get their hands on the software for an extended period of time.

Candland says that playing an active role in this process gives customers a greater degree of confidence. “If their company makes the investment in our products, it will be worth their money. They’ll know that the investment is going to save them time and money, help them to be more productive, and decrease training and support costs.”

Customer site visits have been an integral part of the user experience process that has influenced Fusion’s design. During these visits, the Applications UX team has observed more than 170 user roles as they completed their jobs using Oracle products. These firsthand experiences have built the foundation for Fusion products and will ensure that Oracle products meet users’ needs.
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