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PeopleTools 8.50: A Tool Kit to Help Craft a Better User Experience

 

Kathy Miedema

Author: Kathy Miedema, Oracle Applications User Experience
Revised: August 11, 2011
First published: December 11, 2009




With PeopleTools 8.50, PeopleSoft has provided a set of cool, new user interface features that focus on usability. This has allowed PeopleSoft to kick off a substantial ripple effect across all of its applications, which has the potential to improve the user experience for every PeopleSoft user.

 
 
Tina Thorstenson from Arizona State University talks about Oracle PeopleTools 8.50
     
   
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The idea to enhance the user experience behind PeopleTools 8.50 took center stage during development, when PeopleSoft decided that just adding new features wasn’t enough of an upgrade for the next release. That’s when the PeopleSoft User Experience (UX) team began an intense review of the new tool kit features, and crafted the designs that would improve the look, feel, and experience of PeopleSoft’s applications.

“We took that opportunity to really focus 8.50
on overall usability and incorporate some
new capabilities.”
– Jeff Robbins, Senior Director of PeopleTools Strategy, Oracle

“We took that opportunity to really focus 8.50 on overall usability and incorporate some new capabilities into our framework for building applications,” said Jeff Robbins, Senior Director of PeopleTools Strategy. PeopleTools 8.50 contains Web 2.0-style tools and other features such as drag-and-drop, enhanced scrolling, and zoom on tables, or grids. “We were really looking to see what our applications needed to do, in terms of user experience, that would help us compete.”

 
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PeopleSoft’s loyal customers helped drive the changes to PeopleTools, Robbins said. Members of the PeopleTools Customer Advisory Board (CAB), which has been meeting four times a year since 2007, were enthusiastic about ideas to improve PeopleTools. “The great thing about our relationship with the CAB is that it’s an ongoing dialog, an open and candid discussion that has spanned a breadth of time,” Robbins said. “That open, honest dialog with people who are clear PeopleSoft advocates helped set the direction here.”

The result is a richer, more interactive, modern-looking PeopleTools, which was launched in September 2009. Members of the UX team turned their expert eye and considerable knowledge about usability to the main menu, navigation, grids, and collaborative features – always keeping the user in mind as they provided design recommendations.

Features Aim to Improve Productivity

Harris Kravatz, an Oracle User Experience Manager who led the team that worked on PeopleTools 8.50 user experience updates, says one of the biggest improvements has been reclaiming screen real estate. Several other new features have helped boost productivity and efficiency for users, including:

  • In-context pop-up windows: Users can now see information from their primary screen while they complete a task on a secondary screen in a pop-up-style window.
  • Mouse-over pop-ups: These tidbits of contextual information show key data in a pop-up window without disrupting a user’s task.
     
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PeopleTools 8.50 has introduced navigation improvements to the main menu, such as a “breadcrumbs” feature, top, that help users keep track of where they are and return quickly to a previous page. From the breadcrumbs feature, users can also quickly navigate to sub-menus that appear as pop-up windows, middle right.
  • Type-ahead or auto-suggest: This feature saves time and clicks, allowing the user to bypass several steps in a search by building a list of possible query solutions, and then sending the user directly to the page he wants. In usability tests, users were very positive about this feature.
  • Rich text: Users have a new ability to manipulate text easily and quickly.
  • Navigation: Features in the main menu, such as “breadcrumbs,” help users find pages they use frequently and keep track of where they are in an application.
  • Grids: New customization controls give users spreadsheet-like abilities such as scrolling, column freeze, sort indicator, and zoom.

The UX team also helped to develop collaboration tools, familiar to many users as Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 features that they know from using the Internet. Secure, embedded forums, tagging, and chat capabilities provide a lot of value to users, says UX team member Sandeep Karmarkar, a Senior Interaction Design Lead. “This brings opportunities in terms of really extending the typical transaction beyond the transaction page,” he said. “Users can attach a framework of information around a particular vendor so that all related information is context-sensitive. It provides an opportunity for the user to add stuff that is above and beyond, but still related, and help him do his job faster and more efficiently.”

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The ability to pull up an instant-chat screen, left, and get questions answered immediately allows users to collaborate more efficiently within the context of their work.

Karmarkar, who worked on the designs of in-context pop-up windows and mouse-over functionality,  among other features for PeopleTools 8.50, says both of those features have had a huge impact in the time and number of clicks it takes a user to complete a task. “If you see how it used to work in the past, you had to click to go back and forth between a primary screen and a secondary screen. There were multiple clicks to access the same amount of information, but now there’s just one click with the modal window, and then the user closes the modal window and goes back to the previous page.” With the mouse-over feature, a user simply rolls over an item and the information pops up, in context with the task the user is performing. “In terms of usability, the time it takes to finish tasks this way versus the time it used to take – that’s a strong point,” Karmarkar said. Putting new data in context with the existing page without having to send the user to multiple pages is a great success, he added. User experience designers have to consider the time it takes for a user to search for content, memorize the content, and come back to the space where they are working on a task, and that can take a while. Each of the new features aims to shorten that cycle. “There is definitely great time saved, which is going to help a user to focus on his task and goal more clearly and effectively,” Karmarkar said.

gif
With the newly redesigned grids in PeopleTools 8.50, users can now drag and drop columns, top left, scroll through the grids rather than paging through content several lines at a time, and freeze columns. These features, and others, provide more spreadsheet-like control for users.

Anna Budovsky, a Senior Interaction Designer with Oracle’s UX team, did extensive redesign work for PeopleTools grids that focused on improving the user experience. She provided an interactive design for the drag-and-drop functionality of grids, which allows users to change the order of columns or remove extra columns completely. The way the cursor changes and shows the future placement of a column, as well as the design for filtering, or sorting, data, were all areas where she had an impact on the usability of the new design. The new ability to add highlight colors for selected rows within grids also helps users scan tubular data faster. “Working with product and development teams, who have direct contact with customers, ensures design validation on many levels,” she said. “We try to provide the best design for users by using the latest trends, and by giving design a facelift in both interactive and visual ways.”

Budovsky also helped develop efficient, easy-to-use designs for PeopleTools related-content features. Icons, controls, and dimensions that affected this functionality were presented to customers and other users in feedback sessions, which helped guide final designs. Using customer feedback, the language on certain buttons was refined and some images were reworked. “We got a lot of positive and excited responses from the customers about the new features, which proved that the design will be used a lot,” Budovsky said.

Backbone for HCM Succession Planning

GIF
Harris Kravatz, Oracle User Experience Manager

Kravatz said the UX team was instrumental in the redesign of the main menu. “The improvements to the way users navigate are huge,” he said. A good example of how the new menu and other navigation improvements work is apparent in PeopleSoft’s HCM 9.1 application, which offers a Succession Planning module built using PeopleTools 8.50. The Succession 360 feature, which provides a 360-degree view of succession planning, uses several new PeopleTools functions. A user might start with an employee search using the type-ahead list, then view an organizational chart built in such a way that navigation is greatly improved using cascading windows that better utilize screen real estate, pop-up windows that appear in context, and a mouse-over feature that reduces the load time of a page. When the employee’s profile information appears via mouse-over, the user finds social features that make gathering related information easier, including a rating box on the employee that can be edited.

Kravatz drew on an existing pool of Oracle UX knowledge to help guide the designs for all of these features, and the result is a succession planning application built by PeopleTools that improves usability. “We wanted to provide a more visual, all-encompassing picture of what’s happening,” Kravatz said. “A user can easily see information about a person, what her job is, key information about her, the impact of loss and risk of leaving, and then can manage a succession plan for her. You can see the big picture in one page as opposed to having to navigate through data-heavy, field-heavy pages that don’t really resonate with you.”

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From an organizational chart, a user can click to call up an employee’s information, including a list of successors if the person leaves her position with the company.

Kravatz is pleased with the results of the UX team’s work on succession planning. “It’s getting a lot of focus, and we’re trying to put a lot more of this into our products,” he said.

A Seamless, Easy-to-Learn User Experience

From the main menu to the in-context, pop-up window of PeopleTools 8.50, the UX team has combined its usability expertise with best business practices. But what Oracle’s UX team members expect customers to notice most is how much more efficient they can be as they go about their daily routine. “From the user’s perspective, if the interface is intelligent enough, that allows me to focus on things I really I want to do and not get involved in the typical work of finding out what an application is all about,” Karmarkar said. “Our focus has been to make all of these enhancements as intuitive as possible so there is no learning factor with it. We just want people to look at it and say, ‘Yeah, I know how it works, I’ve seen something like this before.’ That’s been the goal and driving force behind all of these features, from a UX standpoint.

Kravatz says the UX team’s designs focus on how to increase a user’s productivity. “We think, let’s provide something that users can use,” he said. “PeopleSoft applications have been out there awhile, and we have very loyal customers. PeopleTools is one of the reasons PeopleSoft is so successful, and that’s very powerful.”

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