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Putting the Customer at the Center of Agile 9.3’s Universe

 

Kathy Miedema

Author: Kathy Miedema, Oracle Applications User Experience
Revised: May 7, 2010
First published: July 24, 2009




Two and a half years of research, design iterations, and heavy customer feedback have produced the new Agile 9.3 user experience, which delivers a dramatic improvement in productivity for users. Oracle has invested substantially in adding features and enhancements that not only make users more efficient, but also help them become productive more quickly with the new Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software, which was released in June 2009.

 
 
Agile 9.3: John Hitchcock, 2Wire, On the new user experience
     
   
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Months of user research and continuous customer involvement – from the early concept designs of Agile 9.3 through its testing phases – have refined the user experience of this software.

“The clear business mandate was to create a compelling user experience that would tie the functionality to the value and the people that get the value,” says Steve Van Lare, Vice President of Agile Development. “It’s brilliant to focus on the user, who becomes the center of the universe.  And if you are going to make them the center of the universe, then it behooves you to go build that relationship and understand the people you are building the application for. You have to understand what the user needs -- and then do it.”

“You have to understand what the user needs -- and then do it.”
– Steve Van Lare,
Vice President of Agile Development, Oracle

Working with end users in the lab, in their workplaces and collaborating with them through Web conferences has provided invaluable input to designers and allowed users to influence the direction of the product, said Joel Nave, a Group Manager in the Oracle Applications User Experience (UX) team. Several new or enhanced features went through multiple design changes as they were reviewed with customers. Customers most influenced the following features:

 
 
Jeff McKibben, from Oracle customer ON Semiconductor, discusses the improved user experience in Agile 9.3.
     
   
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  • Type-ahead suggestions. This feature allows users to simply type text, and the system will suggest options based on what they have entered.  As they continue to type, the options will narrow.  In some cases, this simple feature takes minutes off of data-entry tasks.  It has been a clear winner and quickly become a favorite of users during the testing phase.
  • Inline table editing. Editing information in a table has always required several steps.  This feature allows users to directly edit information by clicking on a table cell.  Keyboard controls for navigating the table, filling values down a column, adding new table rows, and saving edits have also been added to make data-entry tasks more efficient.   
  • Table personalization. It is common for a table to contain tens of columns, but often a user is only interested in a few columns of information.  Rather than having to hunt for the information they want, or scroll endlessly, a user can now personalize each table to contain only the information that is relevant to his or her job.
  • Drag/Drop and Copy/Paste. These features were added to allow users to efficiently move data from one area of the system to another without having to re-enter it. These features are another way to help users be more efficient while also reducing data-entry errors.
 
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Nave said it was important that customers be able to quickly reap the benefits of the enhanced Agile 9.3.  Designers kept the core navigation model and information design, and added new learning aids such as video tours, which help users get up to speed quickly in Agile 9.3. In addition, inline messaging and alerts have been improved to help guide users through the application.

Research with Oracle Customers

With the single objective to improve user productivity, the User Experience team set out to learn more about the end-users of Agile PLM.  Researchers went to customer workplaces, conducted one-on-one interviews with end-users, and observed customers as they worked in order to gain a better understanding of their roles, how they complete their tasks, and what their needs were. These customers were from several leading manufacturing companies in the high tech, life sciences, and consumer packaged goods industries. Months of research and collaboration with customers resulted in a clear set of requirements and provided a good base for the new interface design, Nave said.

GIF
Nave led the User Experience research efforts behind Agile 9.3 improvements.

Although Oracle’s research pointed the UX team to familiar features such as drag-and-drop and copy-and-paste, it also took them in directions they did not expect.  One example is the new Navigator feature, which allows users to move data to the left pane and then use that data to drive system navigation.  Users can take the results of a search, push it to the left pane and then view each result without losing the context of the original search results list.  This was something that came directly from collaborating with a customer and has been received very well by end users.

As the project moved into the design phase, the Oracle UX team began to review design concepts with customers, using wireframes, mock-ups, and prototypes.  The team built a prototype for inline table editing that allowed users to be hands-on, which meant customers could critique the design before development started.  “The new table created some interesting behavior challenges,” Nave said.  “Being able to test it with users allowed us to iterate and refine it early in the design. To take something so complex and try to simplify it for users required a significant amount of interaction with end users and the development team.”

Based on input from user research, the design team also worked to simplify the interface and create consistency across the suite of software applications.

Despite all of the design reviews prior to the start of development of Agile 9.3, there was still room to improve the application’s user experience once the software was built. “Although several customer design reviews were done on Error and Warning handling, it wasn’t until the users were on live code during usability testing that we learned that we missed the mark,” Nave said. “Although the general direction was good, there were some design elements that really confused users. We ended up simplifying the design and significantly improving this area of the product. Having planned for design and development iterations really allowed us to refine the product prior to delivering it to the customer.”

GIF
A popular new feature of Agile 9.3 is the Navigator, which allows users to move data to the left pane on their screen.

As the design of the product solidified, the Agile team began to observe users as they worked through their tasks, on their data, and using their processes – but with Agile 9.3 software. This helped the team to uncover more issues. “It was like peeling back the layers of an onion,” Nave said.  “Initial research and early customer design reviews set our direction and guided our design concepts, usability testing helped us refine that direction, and the customer programs allowed us to uncover further issues in real customer environments.”     

A final study measured productivity improvements using the live code.  Users worked through tasks using their data and processes on previous generations of Agile applications, and then worked through the same tasks on Agile 9.3. Results showed that, on average, it took users 50% less time to complete a subset of core tasks on Agile 9.3. “This was a gratifying result for the team who worked through two and a half years of research, design, development, and testing,” Nave said.

 

Hearing the Customer’s Voice

Oracle customers involved in the testing of Agile 9.3 said they appreciated being able to take such an active part in the creation of software they use every day.

Results showed that, on average, it took users 50% less time to complete a subset of core tasks on Agile 9.3.

Nave said one customer told him he was thrilled to see several enhancements he'd suggested over the years, and was really reassured to know that the customer's voice is heard at Oracle. Other customers have talked about how they can definitely see the positive results that two years of research and redesign on Agile 9.3 have delivered.

“We can see improved usability and productivity in our product development processes," said Daniel Hartley, a PLM Applications Manager for Quantum Corporation.

GIF
Agile 9.3’s new inline table editing feature reduces the steps a user takes to change the contents of the table.

"Agile has had a tradition of being easy to use, and the enhancements in version 9.3 belay any concerns that the Oracle acquisition would dilute this advantage. Agile has also led the PLM market with analytics, and this continues to be true with the latest improvements," said Michael Burkett, of AMR Research.

A Better User Experience

 “The consistent involvement of customers throughout the project had a significant impact on the final product -- sometimes taking us in directions that we had not expected,” Nave said. But the result, which customers and members of Oracle’s Agile team agree on, is a new set of software applications that give Agile users a big boost in productivity.

Users will undoubtedly experience big changes in the new generation of Agile 9.3. “The best technologies are technologies that just work,” Van Lare said.  “We wanted an application that was transparent to the user and just helped them get their work done.  We wanted a light application -- to lift out the weight.”

 “We simplified what was there before,” said Madhuri Kolhatkar, Director of Oracle’s Applications Unlimited User Experience team. ”In this case, less is more for our users. And the user experience is better -- that’s the key.”

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