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Oracle Applications Put Desktop on Mobile Devices

Software Focuses on Efficiency for Sales Teams and Managers

Author: Kathy Miedema, Oracle Applications User Experience
March 20, 2009




Building enterprise applications for today’s mobile devices comes with a unique set of challenges. But bringing the advantages of the desktop to the small screen of a mobile device is what customers need, as more and more people use personal digital assistants (PDAs) to conduct business while they’re on the move.

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Dhayan Kumar – Oracle Applications Unlimited User Experience

This image shows how MSA’s list of appointments would look on an iPhone screen. Users have easy access to contacts and accounts, and the ability to see recent and frequently-viewed items is one click away.

New Oracle applications for mobile devices draw from large enterprise applications, scaling them down to provide only what customers need on their mobile devices, says Madhuri Kolhatkar, Director of Oracle’s Applications Unlimited User Experience team. That means understanding how to make users more efficient with mobile devices, such as the iPhone and the BlackBerry, by providing them with enterprise-level transactions at their finger tips.

That’s where Oracle’s Applications User Experience (UX) team comes in. With intensive testing and feedback sessions, both in Oracle labs around the world and via a remote user’s computer screen, UX professionals gather data to help fine-tune the designs of software applications. With applications for mobile devices, Oracle has been working to find ways to help sales representatives become more efficient, by giving them access to contact lists or calendars from their mobile phone, and by aiding managers who need to give approvals or complete tasks quickly and efficiently while traveling. Oracle’s new Mobile Sales Assistant (MSA) application for BlackBerry and iPhone platforms is among a handful of new enterprise applications that have received excellent reviews, because they give customers the information they need to do their work well, even when they’re on the go.

Getting Detailed Feedback from Customers

The goal with MSA was to provide a subset of what users need on a daily basis from their desktop, says Hody Crouch, a Product Strategy Manager who worked on the development of MSA. So the Oracle team needed to collect feedback on everything from what icons should look like to whether the messaging functions worked the way users would expect them to work.

“We did have a clear scope, and we knew some of the features we wanted to have,” says Dhayan Kumar, a Senior Interaction Designer who worked on MSA. But the development of the Mobile Sales Assistant application was a little different, because it was a new idea. “This is from scratch,” he said. “When it’s from scratch, it becomes a whole different ball game. It’s something new, and it’s quite exciting, the way the design worked. So with a new feature or new requirement, that’s where the customer feedback really helped.”

After an intensive two-month-long customer feedback process in the summer of 2008, the application for busy salespeople was released after OpenWorld 2008 in September. The designs were tested with users of Blackberry and iPhone to understand how they would use the applications when they were on the move.

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Dhayan Kumar – Oracle Applications Unlimited User Experience

The Contacts page of the Mobile Sales Assistant application is shown on different platforms, including BlackBerry. The application allows mobile users to manage their contacts from their handheld device.

This meant recruiting users who were already familiar with how a BlackBerry or iPhone is meant to work, and taking them through the design ideas of the application in order to gather their feedback on how it actually was working, Crouch said. Members of the user experience team conducting the research were looking for whether users could navigate the new application easily, whether icons communicated what they needed to, and whether tasks were completed in a way the user would expect the task to be completed.

“The user testing process was very important, and we made a lot of adjustments based on feedback we received,” Crouch said. “It was very helpful to us to go through that process. We made changes very quickly, on a weekly basis, in response to feedback, so there were quite a few changes from the beginning of the process to the last meeting.” 

The UX team conducted two primary feedback phases. The first was an advisory board of four customers who, from week to week, were given task scenarios and specific screens to evaluate, says Erika Webb, a User Experience Manager. Members of the board were presented with screens based on a scenario, such as using a contacts list, then they would walk through prototypes of the application. UX team members would ask questions like, “Where would you go next? What do you think of the icons? When you clicked that, is that what you would expect to happen? What would you do from here?”

The UX team also conducted lab testing with five customers who were field representatives for their companies. In one of the scenarios, users were asked to assume that they were out on the road, had some free time, and needed to follow up on a lead, Webb said. Team members would say, “Here is your lead’s name – how would you review the details about this lead? Do you understand how to isolate something specific about this lead? What are the most important things you would want to know?” The goal was to identify, for example, three things a customer would be most likely to look for, when it was necessary to drill down into greater detail, and what customers felt were critical needs.

“People have expectations based on the kind of technology they’ve worked with before,” Webb said. “We need to meet those expectations.” So, when designing an application for an Apple product such as the iPhone, the screen customers see needs to be clean, not cluttered, to mesh with Apple’s design aesthetic. “Even though the software is built by Oracle, customers expect it to look a certain way because this is an Apple product,” she said.

“From a product perspective, it is very different working on something where the user was so central in all of the decisions we were making,” Crouch said. Users recruited for the research came back week after week for five weeks to an evolving design that incorporated their feedback.

Oracle “took the medium into consideration and designed for that medium” when creating the MSA application and other applications for mobile devices, says Kolhatkar, of Oracle’s Applications Unlimited User Experience team. “There’s a lot of focus on creating solutions that map to things we see in the marketplace.”

Three other enterprise applications for iPhone were also released in 2008: Oracle Business Indicators, which enables a mobile user to access any predefined analytic reports such as inventory reports; Oracle Business Approval for Managers, which routes workflow notifications such as expense approvals or job offers to a mobile device; and Oracle Business Approval for Sales Managers, which gives managers the ability to act quickly to approve a quote or finish writing an approval from their PDA, according to Judy Krawec, a Product Strategy Director with Oracle’s Business Intelligence group.

Response from the Marketplace

“The folks at Apple were pleased to see the design and validation approach Oracle UX took in designing the applications,” Kolhatkar says. ”They liked the simplicity and criticality of the tasks available. Apple really appreciated that we identified key tasks – the whole effort to make sure that graphics, icons, and tasks worked the way a user would expect them to work.” The way Oracle went about designing the MSA application, in particular, shows that the user experience team ”really knew human-interface guidelines and applied those,” she said.

At OpenWorld in 2008, BlackBerry showed its appreciation for the UX team’s work by promoting the MSA application for Oracle, Kolhatkar said. “That was a real testament to Oracle’s focus on user experience and how important that was, and we’re continuing to build other solutions for BlackBerry and iPhone.”

The proof of success, however, is always in the response from customers. “We’re hearing a lot of interest about these iPhone mobile applications” says Krawec, with Oracle’s Business Intelligence group. “Everyone thinks the iPhone user interface is so intuitive, so great, and we’re monitoring user adoption rates very closely.” Oracle Business Indicators, which was launched to coincide with Apple’s launch of its applications store in July 2008, has been downloaded close to 40,000 times as of December 2008. OBA for Managers, which was released in November 2008, has been downloaded 9,500 times, and OBA for Sales Managers recorded 2,500 downloads in November and December 2008.

Mobile Sales Assistant was downloaded more than 7,000 times between September 2008 and January 2009, said product manager Crouch, and there have been more than 1,500 upgrades – which means customers installed the application and kept it long enough to upgrade, he said.

“For enterprise users, the mobile device is going to be more and more important,” Krawec said. “Users want something super-intuitive on a mobile device, especially in enterprise apps. You really want it to be very easily accessible, information should be concise, and it should not take a whole lot of navigation to get to the final destination.”

And the reason Oracle has more insight into how to handle such a challenge and turn it into a well-designed, and usable, software application is because of the user studies completed by Oracle’s UX teams.

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