SAP offers more proof consumer software is the new enterprise standard

SAP -- yes, SAP -- wins a software design award by emulating consumer apps.

"The world has completely flipped."

That's how Sam Yen, SAP's global head of Design and User Experience, describes the shift in dominance between enterprise and consumer software developments. "Our position is that the consumer user experience is the new bar for enterprise software. It's table stakes."

For me, this enormous sea change is one of the most interesting trends in technology today, so I wanted to know more about how an old-line, traditional tech vendor like SAP got consumer-app religion.

From App Haus to our house

"What does consumer have to do with SAP?" Yen asked." It's a way to bring about the renewal that was necessary for SAP," he answered. "Consumer software is a whole new paradigm that you need to understand to remain a player in modern software development."

Before taking on overall design responsibility for SAP, Yen explains, he joined SAP to create the company's App Haus several years ago. Named in homage to the famous Bauhaus school of design, the small internal incubation group was tasked with exploring what SAP could learn from the consumer space. The App Haus hired people with startup, gaming, and consumer software backgrounds, Yen says, and moved into startup-style digs a few miles away from SAP's Silicon Valley offices. The team's mission was to "explore new business opportunities, but do something that doesn't seem obvious."

Enterprise vs. consumer

Ten or fifteen years ago, Yen recalls, you'd go into the office and expect state-of-the-art systems, the fastest computers, biggest monitors, and so on:

"Innovation started with research groups and flowed into then industry and then trickled its way to consumers. Now, innovation starts at the consumer and kind of trickles its way into the enterprise. It's easy to book a trip on Expedia, but much harder to accomplish that same task in the enterprise. For an enterprise software company, that sets a new bar."

According to Yen, "true innovation comes at [the] intersection of tech feasibility, business viability, and consumer desirability… But the enterprise software industry missed that human component, focusing solely on finding technical solutions to business needs."

The rise of smartphones and the consumerization of IT puts consumer apps right next to business, Yen points out, so "you really notice the difference."

To keep up, he adds, desirability has to become part of the equation, which completely changes the development process to be much more user-centered. That means taking specific steps to interact and understand the end user, including iterative prototyping and getting feedback before writing the code, when changes start to get expensive. Doing that successfully requires new tools and different skill sets, including how to talk to end users, more emphasis on appealing visual design, and engaging interactivity. Those skills, Yen acknowledges, "have been mostly lacking in the traditional ways that enterprise software was built."

Award-winning scouting app

"We're a little late to the game," Yen admits, but touts Fiori and Screen Personas as examples of the new approach. And then there's the award-winning SAP Scouting app.

Working with the San Francisco 49ers football team, Yen recalls, the App Haus initially planned to build a fan experience for the new stadium the team was building nearby, but "scouting turned out be a more urgent need… so we took that on first."

"We immersed ourselves in lives of scouts," Yen said, riding along with them on trips, and even attending the NFL combine where potential draft picks are evaluated. "We tried to find ways to optimize and make that experience easier to use. To design software for scouts to let them do scouting and not worry about the software."

The result earned at least a few fans, taking home the 2014 People's Choice Award in design at the Interaction Design Association's Interaction Awards earlier this month.

"The award was great," Yen said, "but the important thing was that end users really liked it." Wouldn't it be great to see that attitude from more enterprise developers?

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