Enterprise Software Design Blog

Archive for the ‘Web 2.0’ Category

As discussed in my earlier post(Extensibility Design), an extensible design provides the ability to customize an enterprise application software to server business needs of different customers. Extensibility is critical to the application software vendor especially if the software is delivered through a SaaS or On-Demand model. The underlying application architecture should support a metadata based model, which will provide a framework to extend the out of the box application to suite different customers’ needs. The framework should provide a generalized mechanism to construct application components to build the software.

The generalized mechanism for extensibility will mainly provide following three features.

  • Data Model Extensibility: The end users should be able to manage attributes with in a business objects. They should be able to add a new attribute of any data type and define rules for it.
  • UI Extensibility: The end users should be able to add new attribute to the UI forms as a field and the data can be added/modified using these fields. The field can be either simple editable text, number (such as amount, percentage), lookup or even media object (such as image, video) etc.,
  • Security Privileges: The design should take in to account that can extend a business object and once extended who can view and manage these extended attribute.

Data Model Extensibility

Data model extensibility is achieved through flexible attributes. Flexible attributes are generic attributes that is associated with a logical business objects. Flexible attributes are of generic data type (such as Raw) and can hold data of any type. The data will be stored as raw bytes and will be converted to appropriate data type on the business layer before transaction processing. An example of flexible attribute for CRM Opportunity object is given below.

UI Extensibility

UI Extensibility refers to the ability to add a field on runtime to a page. A ‘customize’ link will bring up the extensibility editor which will allow the users to create a new field in the form. The editor will prompt the user to enter the label and type. The types can either text, number of lookup. If lookup is chosen, then the editor will prompt the user to enter the lookup items. The user can also choose other properties such as required field and validation rules (not shown in wireframe below).

Security Privileges

The visibility of extended attributes and fields will depend on the security privileges. The attributes in the data model will inherit the data security policy defined for the logical business object and the function security will depend on any of the following.

  • Organization Hierarchy: The field can be made visible to the any of the organization hierarchy defined such as sales org, marketing organization etc.,
  • Employee Hierarchy: The field can be made visible to the any of the employee hierarchy defined. The administrator will choose a sales VP and all employees reporting under sales VP will see the fields.
  • All Users: The field can be made visible to all the uses with in a enterprise.

It should be noted that in a SaaS model, the customization will be visible only to those who extends the product. Subscribers’ from other customers will not be able to see these changes.

Enterprise Software products are unique and generally different organizations use it differently. It will be rare or impossible to see enterprise software used without modifications by enterprises. A typical enterprise has unique needs based on their organization structure and they customize the software available off the shelf. They hire functional and technical consultants, who have expert level knowledge of underlying technology and functionality to perform these customizations. The nature of customization could be either simple UI change, data model change or it could even more complex such as behavioral change (i.e. configuring workflows, adding business rules etc.,) or third party integrations. The consultants will typically make changes to the application source code and would require source code maintenance with the enterprise.

With the emergence of SaaS delivery model and multi-tenancy needed to achieve economies of scale, software customization for individual is not a viable option. The vendor will not be able to maintain versions of software for every customer and with software available on cloud the enterprises cannot maintain source code in house. At the same time, customers should be able to extend the product functionality to suit their needs. Software extensibility framework helps software to be customization without a need to change the underlying source code. A good extensibility framework design will allow the end users to customize the software and these customization will be visible only in the instance which the customer is accessing.

An extensible design can be categorized as following.

  • UI Extensibility: The user interface layer should be extensible and the customer should be able to customize the look and feel of the application. This customization can range from changing colors, application branding (i.e. changing logos), changing widgets look and feel and advanced customization such as customizing label texts, show/hide UI widgets, customizing error messages etc.,
  • Data Model Extensibility: The end users should be able to extend the data model for any object. They should be able to add a new field to the form and add data to it. The field can be of any data type including the multimedia content. The application should allow for defining validation rules and lookup values. Note that the data model extensibility generally doesn’t allow for creating data model or re-defining object relationships.
  • Workflow Extensibility: A typical business process consists of a workflow that is sequence of connected steps helps complete a task. The extensibility should allow the end users to configure these workflow steps (i.e. add/delete a step), define business rules, add notifications etc.,

I will discuss each of these with an example in my subsequent posts.

Data visualization is the study of visually representing data for the purpose of effective communication of data through visual means. Data visualization will improve the aesthetics (you no longer have to see the boring tables and standard widgets) and improve the intuitiveness of the data being resented. Data visualization is a effective tool to present the information to the user in a way it maps the representation they have in their mind.

Apart from BI and analytics where there is a need to represent data as charts, enterprise software designers overlooked the need for visually representing data in transactional pages. This is predominantly due to technical limitation with web browsers and the technology used to develop the UI layer. With the proliferation of Rich Internet Application (RIA) frameworks (Adobe Flex, JaveFX etc), representing data on web browsers is feasible and gives an opportunity for the software designers to take a re-look at their data representation philosophies.

Data visualization and RIA presents enterprise software designers with an opportunity to represent the regular enterprise transactional data as graphics. When designed correctly, it automatically enhances the user experience and usability of the application. Enterprise data models are inherently complex structures with complicated relationships among them. These data models represent enterprise objects and their relationship with each others. The users of the enterprise software generally have a mental model of these data. After all they work and interact with these objects in their day-to-day work life and use the enterprise software to effectively communicate a job. Successful data visualization should map the mental model and represent the mind map on the screen. This immediately creates a trust between the software and user and makes the user interaction simpler and effective.

Let’s take an example of sales manager of a high tech company selling laptops and desktop computers to large companies. He will have a team of sales representatives reporting in to him. He will have a typical mental model about the customers, sales reps engaging with these customers, the sales targets and current status. He knows the relationships these have among each other and he can visually imagine this in his mind. These objects such as customer, sales reps, products, targets and status are available in the enterprise data model as data in rows and column. The data by itself is complex and its representations as rows and column is difficult to comprehend and doesn’t match the mental model the user has.

The mental model of a sales manager looks like this.

With data visualization using rich internet applications, this mental model can be captured in the design below. With a click of a button (on the sales representative node), the sales manager can view the open pipeline for the customer. The design exactly maps the image that sales manager has in his mind and don’t have to wade through the maze of HTML table to find out the information.

What is Enterprise 2.0?

Enterprise 2.0 is the latest buzzword that is generating interest in corporate IT circles and software vendor’s boardroom. The word was coined by Harvard university professor and as I understand this is about bringing Web 2.0 collaboration tools and techniques such as social media, wikis, blogs, twitter etc., in to corporate computing environment. Forrester predicts the market will grow to 4 billion US$ and will revolutionize the collaboration within the enterprises.

Enterprise 2.0 – Problem

While Enterprise 2.0 is great idea and has the potential to increase efficiency of corporate collaboration, it only focuses on collaboration between knowledge workers. The benefits Web 2.0 of should reach the entire spectrum of corporate users such as sales, finance, administration and HR. Also, the users will not use it just for the sake of better collaboration unless or until it makes them more efficient and helps them complete their tasks quickly and efficiently. As enterprise software users, we already use quite a lot of applications  in our day-to-day operation and having to use couple of more tools just for collaboration is not going to easy. The unique feature of online social media applications such as FaceBook and MySpace is provides better way (or incremental innovation over email/chat) way for people to share and collaborate. These applications allow the users to share an object of interest with their friends and then collaborate among them. It the object of interest could either be a picture, a video (uploaded in YouTube), a blog post or just a status message. Since this is an object of interest for many people, they get attracted to it and start posting comments on it. This way the collaboration begins and you people have meaning discussion around it.

Enterprise 2.0 – What it should be

Enterprise 2.0 should ideally be a platform through which all enterprise applications are offered. The application will be the object of interest for the corporate users and they will collaborate among selves to solve problems and complete their task. For example, an employee will typically use a HR self service type of an application to apply leave. If the leave application is rejected, then he will connect with manager. The leave application is the object of interest and entire process of applying for a leave, approval/rejection flow and subsequent communication should be offered within on top of Enterprise 2.0 platform. The object of interest should not be restricted to just one application. It should cover entire gamut of application from HR self service, to expense systems to complex application such as CRM/ERP and analytics. This provides a consistency in interaction with every enterprise application increase adoption of not only the Enterprise 2.0 platform but other applications as well. (Though there are technical challenges, Enterprise 2.0 needs to overcome this to succeed in enterprise environments).

To illustrate with an example, take a look at the screen shot below. This is how a typical Enterprise 2.0 platform home page should look like (Heavily inspired from Facebook and Orkut).  On the right hand side, it displays all the application that every employee will use to access information and complete a task. This includes benefits administration, payroll application and time card application. It also allows the user to add other applications that enterprise provides that they may need to use such as document management, knowledge base and CRM Portal. On the left hand side, the application displays the names of peers and managers. The user can add other employees and group them as shown.

On the center, application displays live updates. As you can see, it tells the user that one of his direct reports, Bruce Johnson has submitted an expense report for approval. Jene has completed a design document and she is waiting for him to review it and his very own leave application is approved by his manager. If you observe carefully these are three different applications (and possibly from three different software vendors) i.e.. expense management system, document management system and time card application. All these three are provided within one single Enterprise 2.0 platform and the user can seamlessly move between these applications. The e is no need for user need not switch from one application to another, nor view different applications with different user experience and then complete their task.

The application allows user to see the details of the expense embedded within it (by clicking ‘Show More’). The user sees that Bruce has only entered expense for a day and he wants all the expense as one single report. So user clicks on the ‘Ask details’ button and enters the comment as shown. Bruce sees the same comment when he logs in to the Enterprise 2.0 tool as a live update and he will respond to it in a similar way. The user didn’t use different application and mediums (i.e. email, chat or phone) for collaboration.