Archive for the 'Usability' Category



Vote early – vote often

WOOOOHOOOOO! I made it to the next stage of Munich Idol SAPTechEd Community Sessions. So go and vote. The voting application is not FireFox friendly so make sure you use the excellent IETab plugin or use Internet Explorer.

There are some great sessions planned. This is the list of the sessions that got my vote:

  • Continuous Availability of Nestlé’s Enterprise Portal – A Case Study.
  • Exploring PHP and SAP development
  • Implementing Dynamic iView Properties
  • Lessons learned from SOA integration with Typo3 WebCMS
  • PHP in the SAP Ecosystem.
  • Processing workflow tasks on a Blackberry handheld using Java Web Dynpro
  • SOA Testing Techniques for NetWeaver Application Server
  • Test-Driven Development with ABAP OO
  • Unit Tests for Enterpise Portal Applications
  • Zero-administration user management: a perfect configuration?

Maybe you can see my bias peeking through: PHP, Testing, TDD, Portal, Blackberry.

I really am not concerned who you vote for (a vote for my PHP sessions would be nice) but please make sure you vote. The community sessions are your chance to shape the conversation.

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Computers Humane? Pull the other one!

A little while ago I was all for throwing my mouse away. I will have some more to say about that in the future but that led Thomas to post about ENSO and how the command line is making a comeback.

I was game, so I have installed ENSO and been giving it a run for its money. (Well it was a trial version so no money has been changed hands yet.)

I am not yet convinced. It has potential, but it has not made the jump into my ‘must-have’ utility kit bag.

I kindly disagreed with a colleague on SDN not so long ago who suggested that the CLI could be a way to increase developers productivity. Now, while I agree there could be many ways to increase SAP developers productivity, I didn’t think that the command line was one of them. The main reason I didn’t agree with Puru was because of the context switch involved. Here I am coding in SE80 or SE38 or SE24 and all of a sudden I have to switch to some other console and type a command in which I have to remember from memory and get exactly right. I am sorry but that argument doesn’t work for me.

Thomas, of course, reminded me that SAP has a command line built in. It is one of the best parts of working in SAP. You can go up to that transaction code box and enter your code and whammo – it’s like a Second Life teleport – you are in your new transaction. Prefix your transaction with /o and you get a new session. Prefix it with /n and you reuse the current session. If you leave out a prefix then it tries to run the command in the context of the current transaction. You can use dot notation to transverse the accelerator keys so ‘.mwd’ will take you to Utilities(M)->Worklist->Display from the SAP Workbench (SE80). (note the M is from the German word for utilities – Hilfsmittel) This can be very useful to get to a menu path very quickly. You can get your cursor into the transaction code box with a CTRL+/. All in all, a very powerful little box. In fact when the new ‘Apollo’ gui was first unveiled on SDN, one of the comments was: ‘Please don’t take away the transaction code box’. Quite. Don’t.

I have said all this to describe how useful the ‘command line’ can be. I generally have a love have relationship with command lines. I usually want to be in the mode that I am not. If I am creating a database I want a lovely gui. If I am trying to update a clients website I want to do something simple like ‘svn up’, which will take the latest code from the repository. I am not against the command line. In fact I am for it. What I dislike about the command line is the ability to remember all the little syntaxes and switches and the inane minutae.

This leads me back to ENSO. What I like about ENSO is it prompts you as you type, in the same way that google suggest does.

ENSO sits between you and every application you have and can work with (almost) all of them. To invoke ENSO you hold down the capslock key and start typing. This leads to some pretty contorted finger movements especially when hitting the tab key to complete a phrase.

So you start typing ‘CA’ and you get the following options: ENSO calculate function

This is very useful as you:

  1. Don’t have to remember the whole command
  2. Can get to where you want to go in about 3-4 key strokes

Some of the basic functions that ENSO performs are:

  1. The calculator trick + – / *
  2. Changing case
  3. Turning on/off caps lock (this key has been taken over remember)
  4. Cut, Copy, Paste

These are available with every ENSO product. I tried the launcher product which has additional commands like:

  1. go – switches to a window or tab
  2. maximize / minimize
  3. open
  4. learn as open

OK. So lets look at how useful some of these functions are. Did I use them and what did ENSO do to my system?

Let us start with the calculator trick. It is acually quite neat. You have 4+9 on your page, you highlight it, type CA with caps lock held down, release and all of a sudden you have 13. If you want a little sum then add = to the end of your sum and low and behold you have 4+9=13. All very fast. I know you can do 4+9=13 in your head. The beauty is that this is available everywhere. In your financial app, your photo editor or your text editor.

The other function I found most useful is the CAPS change function. When coding I like to have some keywords in CAPS. Mostly SQL keywords and not all editors I use support this. SAP has a keywords upper case setting in the pretty print config and PSPad has a change case function built in. Eclipse doesn’t though and I do like my select’s laid out so they are easy to read. So ENSO made it easy to convert:

Select userID, firstname, lastname from users order by lastname

into

SELECT userID, firstname, lastname FROM users ORDER BY lastname

and I am a happy coder.

The upper case function

One of the other key features was the learn as open. This enables you to teach ENSO a command to open some resource. I have shortcuts to particular SAP transactions that I use to make it faster to get to the transaction, system and client I am wanting to use. For example I have a shortcut to ‘SPRO’ on the config client, ‘BSP_WD_WORKBENCH’ on my CRM dev client and ‘SE80’ on my ECC dev client. (Sorry for the jargon – SAP techies will understand. If you didn’t don’t worry – just think of them as bookmarks to URLS)

I created commands in ENSO to open each of these systems and it works a treat. No reaching for the mouse. Just OPEN DEV and off you go.

This all sounds pretty good and yes it is. Let me describe the downsides.

Firstly all the ‘learn as’ commands are stored as favourites in Explorer, in the root folder. As you added more it does tend to get untidy.

Commands in favourites menu

Secondly, it did tend to reuse the same window for new commands. So if I had something important running in one browser window it clobbered it and loaded the result of the command there. Apparently there is a setting in Explorer to work around this.

Thirdly, it always used Explorer. This is probably because it is set as the default on this machine and I need it that way for SAP development. It would be nice to choose which browser to use in ENSO though.

Fourthly it died a couple of times when I used it in the SAP Standard SE80 editor – doing a simple calc command. ENSO curled over, restarted and collected information for a bug report. This was quite impressive in itself. I sent off the info and the ENSO guys responded quickly. I gave them details about how they could get a copy of the SAP Editor from SDN so they could reproduce this.

In summary – are computers humane? They are improving.

Does ENSO help? It is a good step in the right direction and I will be interested to see what else comes out of their lab. Particularly when you are able to use python to extend the base functionality. Perhaps Thomas will get his wish of being able to give Mary a pay rise from the command line.

Is the command line making a comeback? If if can be made usable then yes. If it remains a puzzle wrapped in a enigma then no. Let’s hope we can get the best of a gui and a command line all in one.

[Bonus link: Google command line]

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symfony PHP5 framework » symfony 1.0 released

symfony PHP5 framework » symfony 1.0 released

Rock ON!

More later… I am very interested in symfony.

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I’d like to throw my mouse away.

Strange thought but hear me out.

I am not really serious. The whole world is too attached to their mice, but this is what I would like to achieve: to be able to drive all applications from the keyboard with out having to resort to moving my right hand 15 cm to the right to grab the mouse to have to click on a button or menu item because there is no other way to activate the action.

As I mentioned in my recent UI Musings post there should be several ways to achieve the action I want to achieve: Menu item, button and shortcut key.

This is all very easy to achieve and it annoys me when applications don’t provide shortcut keys. It annoys me even more when the same action has a different shortcut key for the same action on a different screen.

This is even achievable even with a web application. Look at Google. Reader, gmail, calendar and a host of others provide shortcut keys for the most frequently used actions. This makes for ease of use and enjoyable user experience. Granted some of these shortcuts take a little while to learn but once you get them down it makes for faster navigation.

Some of the banking sign in applications I use have nice little JavaScript code to automatically move the cursor from one field to the next when the 2 characters it is expecting are filled. This simple thing make using those applications a joy.

These things are the 20% that remains after the 80% that matters has been completed. They are ‘nice to have’ but they sure do make applications easier to use.

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UI Musings

There has been a lot flying around the blogosphere this last week about user interfaces.

It was kicked off by James at Redmonk with his review of a case study of a Flex app linking to SAP. Dan then left a great comment. Thomas, Craig and Anne all jumped in and then James posted again based on Craig’s post.

The joy of blogging – Naked Conversations indeed.

Well for what its worth. Here is my take on user interfaces.

I love the old Apple logo which had the users face slammed into the into the computer monitor. Its symbol that the user should be able to work easily and closely with the machine rather than having a fear of it.

I fully appreciate Thomas’s point when he says…

The user of the system is not always the customer. To put it bluntly, a financial system should not be designed to make accounts payable clerks happy. It should make the real customers happy, the CFO and the owners and investors in the business. They should have the confidence that the numbers in the system reflect the business reality. It should designed to track, control, record and predict the financial status of the business. Most of the data that flows into a finance system does so without user intervention. The end-user is not the centre of attention, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore them.

I hope by not ignoring them Thomas allows for making the process efficient and thus increasing productivity.

As The Other Systematic said in the comments…

If my usability expert saves one minute daily for 150,000 employees by making their workday more efficient and reduces call volumes by 30-40%, it’s an accounting exercise, not a group hug.

This is the nature of UI at the enterprise level. Making the back end process efficient. One of my recent customers was needing to reduce headcount and thus more transactions were flowing into the financial system via interfaces rather than via the AP / AR teams. At the same time there was a process to make those entries that did need to go via the data entry teams as streamlined as possible.

It doesn’t need to be flashy. It needs to save a mouse click here and a screen there. All these small saving add up.

To me the use of accelerator keys is critical in user interface development. I am a heavy user of accelerator keys, but I am a tech geek who sits in front of a computer for a living. The user should have several ways to access a particular function depending on how they like to work. A button if it is a key function like printing a document, a menu item (File->Print) and a shortcut key stroke (Alt+F, P) or a direct keystroke (Ctrl+P). The menu item should have the accelerator keys underlined and the direct keystroke should be next to the menu item and in the tool-tip of the button. That way a user can do tasks the easy way, by click on a button and then learn the quicker way.

The best advice I read to learn the direct keystrokes was to rollover the menu and then read the keystroke combination and then stop using the menu and use the direct keystroke.

User Interfaces don’t have to be flashy, but they do have to be functional and they have to make it easy and dare I say easy and intuative to use for the new user and fast to use for the expert.

I think I will be musing more on this subject.

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Twitter.com

Craig sent me an invite to twitter.com yesterday.

All it seems attempting to do is answer the question – ‘What are you doing now?’

It is of course a social networking type thing built with agily type methods and probably RoR.

What is cool is that it is effectively a broadcast system. If I link up my mobile phone or IM then any message I leave will be sent to my friends, either by SMS, IM or an RSS feed.

Why is this useful? Not sure yet. I think the jury is out on it but hey, you could check it out too or you could view my profile. Ahh, except I am in secret mode so I have to let you in to my inner circle.

It certainly is doing something very simple to appeal to the largest possibly audience, as Niel explains in this post and the UI is very clean and easy to use.

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Jeff buys some stamps online – NOT

Venture Chronicles

When will businesses, of all stripes, figure out that the customer experience they provide with their online systems is increasingly forming the opinions that people have of their organization as a whole?

Good point! As business goes online, the online experience is the business and if the experience is bad it harms the brand. Great software is great business.

I must say Tesco have really done well in this regard. Their online experience is now very good. Varified by Visa, on the other hand, is something else.


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