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Oracle Fusion Applications Adds Collaboration Tools to Workplace Software

Web 2.0-Style Access, Like Social Networking, Helps Employees Connect

Kathy Miedema

Author: Kathy Miedema, Oracle Applications User Experience
March 2, 2011




Turning Web 2.0 features into Enterprise 2.0 tools that enable social networking, tagging, and other collaborative actions from the consumer world have come with a lot of surprises. The Oracle Applications User Experience team has spent the last few years figuring out how to resolve those surprises for Oracle Fusion Applications, Oracle’s new, highly-integrated suite of applications for enterprise workers. The social and collaborative tools were developed after three years of studying trends in how people might use such features for at-home use, and how such tools could be refined to meet the needs of these same people when they’re at work.

All of the new Enterprise 2.0 Fusion features are centered around collaboration, says Thao B. Nguyen, Manager of Emerging Interactions, who oversaw development of the tools from a user experience standpoint. “Collaboration is the big theme. All features fit with collaboration,” she said. The set of collaborative and social tools aim to give users a way to connect with others within their organization, in ways they haven’t been able to connect in the past. At the same time, security concerns have an important role, and these features come with an ability to respond to the viewer’s role in his or her company, keeping specific information private when it’s important to do so.

Top Design Guidelines for Integrating Web 2.0 in Enterprise Applications, from Oracle Applications User Experience
  • Do No Harm: Minimize disruptions to existing workflow.
  • Stay in the Zone: Embed tools in the existing workflow.
  • Location, Location, Location: Screen real estate is precious (and so is a user's attention span).
  • Climb the Corporate Ladder: Leverage existing corporate structures.
  • Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: Encourage the creation and discovery of ad hoc groups.
  • Keep It Simple: People will use tools that are easy to adopt and enhance their user experience.

The new collaborative tools include social networking, which is similar to what a user might find on the Web. Enterprise social networking tools give users ad hoc connections to other individuals that aren’t traditionally found in a corporate hierarchy or structure. Tagging is another new tool, and is similar to what a user would find on the social bookmarking Web site Delicious.com. Tagging allows a user to access the wisdom of the crowds, as well as organize information in a way that is meaningful to the user.

“These collaboration features enhance the user experience,” said Jeremy Ashley, Vice President of Oracle Applications User Experience (UX).  “They augment and add to capabilities.”

Defining the Enterprise 2.0 User

Oracle usability experts focused on adding the new features without interrupting the work a user was already doing, said Oracle Applications UX team members about the Web 2.0 research. In fact, that became one of the guiding design principles in building the new features.

Other design principles were formed as the Applications UX team studied both the casual user and the user at work. Their biggest surprise: social and collaborative tools weren’t going to translate directly. Oracle interaction designer Michal Kopec, who worked on creating a tagging system for Fusion, said that was a defining moment. “That was the big a-ha: There was no overlap between the Web 2.0 user -- the casual user, and the Enterprise 2.0 user -- the user at work,” he said. Consumer users and enterprise users have different motivations, different goals, and different mindsets when they’re sitting at the computer.

“Several insightful things came out of our research,” Nguyen said. “Some things were more important in the enterprise space than in the consumer space, like tagging, which everyone shares in a public space. But in enterprise software, you need to think of security. Private tags, or keywords that flag a particular document or file in a way meaningful only to a particular user, are much more important, and the roles need to be better defined.”

Usability professionals realized that Web 2.0 tools needed to be tweaked for enterprise uses very early on, said Joyce Ohgi, a Senior Usability Engineer for Oracle’s Applications UX team. As they polled customers about what they would want or need, user motivations changed. In the enterprise space, collaboration was all about saving time, being efficient, and making good decisions.

In the consumer space, Ohgi said, a user is looking for entertainment, something to while away the hours, and for the freedom to express individuality. An enterprise user, such as a sales representative who needs to quickly track expenses, or a human resources manager who needs to search for e-mails about a particular employee or benefit, wants to complete the work as fast as possible. These users also represent a specific company or organization within an industry, such as a pharmaceutical company or a food products manufacturer, so any expressions need implicit approval from managers. Ohgi said UX team members also found that consumers expect software to adapt to them, but enterprise users often undergo training to use software, and they will adapt to the software their company uses.

What those findings meant, Ohgi said, is that Oracle’s Applications UX team needed to reset the expectations of product managers and developers inside Oracle. “Just because we can provide a lot of features doesn’t mean users will use them,” she said. “Early design descriptions for Enterprise 2.0 had all kinds of options. Users just wanted something simple.”

The Enterprise 2.0 Tools: Tagging, Group Spaces, Contextual Action, and Activity Stream

After months of researching consumer sites, talking with customers about social networking and collaboration tools, and creating prototypes with Oracle designers, Nguyen says intensive development began in the following areas:

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Oracle Fusion Application’s social networking and collaboration tools are in one convenient place: the collaboration toolbar. This area of icons underneath the page title puts the user’s Enterprise 2.0 tools, such as tags and project spaces, just one click away, and doesn’t divert the attention of users from their primary work.
  • Contextual action
  • Tagging
  • Group spaces
  • Activity stream

Many of the new features were inspired by tools at the consumer level in social networking media. Fusion’s Group Spaces, for example, provide a place where users can collaborate by sharing notes, logs, and calendars, and they can create discussion forums, blogs, wikis, and other documents. The tagging feature that assigns keywords to aid with information retrieval mimics what someone might use on Flickr, but also assigns greater security levels based on company roles.

“Giving people this free hand and allowing them to establish their own collections between different things that they work on made a lot of sense to us when we started this project,” said designer Kopec. “This became more apparent as we got into the project.  Another thing really critical for us was to make sure that every time you add tags, you should see the tag that you used previously on a given object type and be able to reuse that – creating a critical mass of information.” This becomes vitally important when users are allowing tags to help them sort through an enterprise search. But the tagging feature is only as useful as the user makes it, Kopec said.

Another important part of the feature was leveraging the reputation of a user’s tags. The person who creates the tags might give them as much meaning as the tags themselves, as opposed to the consumer user, who is probably unknown to fellow users. Because enterprise users are known to fellow users, the Applications UX team worked hard to be respectful of the user’s privacy. This led to the creation of private tags, which can’t be accessed by other users.

“With tagging, we are really divulging personal interests for the public benefit,” Kopec said. “People are not really going to tag because someone told them to. If you are hoping you can give someone a list of tags that they are supposed to use, it’s not going to work. I’m tagging because it gives meaning to something that I need to retain.”

Customers who took part in confidential usability testing while the tools were being refined for Fusion were happy with the idea of tagging, and the way Oracle’s designers were building the feature. They liked the ability to tag certain accounts and appreciated the usefulness of the tool in helping a user stay organized.

The activity stream, another new collaboration tool, works with people connections. It allows the user to provide status updates as well as to retrieve or share information in group spaces around business objects, such as events or activities. Nguyen says it gives users a real-time log of what is happening. This helps users follow the progress of certain projects with their teammates, for example, or coordinate with peers and co-workers. The activity stream also contains published events about sales opportunities and projects involving a group.

The activity stream helps users make better, faster decisions in the course of their work by tracking the activities of a team of people and making it easy to stay organized in a collaborative atmosphere, she said.

Enterprise 2.0’s Interactive Contextual Action

With the contextual action, which allows a user to take action on an object within the context of the task they are already doing, Oracle introduced a new interaction model that was designed to be pervasive but not intrusive, Nguyen said.  Oracle’s Applications UX team did a lot of usability testing on contextual action to get the design just right. Oracle designers who created the way Fusion’s contextual action works said the options for accessing the information Oracle wanted to make available with contextual action were clunky and not always readily apparent, so the Applications UX team went to the drawing board and came up with something completely new, which Oracle then patented.

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The contextual action in Oracle Fusion Applications allows quick access to information, but without being obtrusive. The small, orange box appears when the cursor rolls over it, providing a user with more information if needed.

The basic problem designers faced was that Oracle wanted to make common actions on common objects, such as a person, phone number, or address – all of which are used throughout the system -- available all the time. The idea is that common actions on these items should be available automatically everywhere these items appeared, which is a Web 2.0 concept.

In enterprise applications, users need information to support decisions, and that’s what Oracle decided to provide, based on feedback from user testing. Options for building a contextual action included icon buttons adjacent to the object, which really cluttered up the screen because they ended up all over the place. There was also the option of adding links on objects, but that could be confused with other links. A user might navigate to another page, or rolling over a link with the cursor might lead to an accidental dismissal of the information.

Designers recognized that some of the existing paradigms wouldn’t really work in an enterprise solution. The main thing was to make sure that additional information was included to support decision-making.  So Oracle’s solution for contextual action goes through three separate, small interactions. Upon entering into a page with contextual action enabled, a user sees a marker such as a box. When the user rolls over the field, users didn’t want things popping up – that was another thing feedback participants were firm about in usability testing. So they had to design this very carefully to ensure that it wasn’t annoying.

The unobtrusive indicator tells the user that there’s something more there, making the information easily discoverable. If the user rolls over a corner and it grows to larger target, they are then presented with dialog that gives them information they need to support making a decision as well as taking an action.

The contextual action is in-line with what a user is doing; they don’t interrupt the user’s task at all. For example, a user can click on an icon and initiate a phone call or send an e-mail without leaving their current task on-screen. The contextual action provides auxiliary information, and the user doesn’t have to take time to navigate back and forth between screens.

Customers who got an early look at contextual action development said they liked the way it worked without interrupting their task flow, and they liked the modern, Web-like look and feel of the design.

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