SAP Screen Designs – SAP Usability is not an option

For some time now, I have been looking for a flexible, user friendly script, that would allow me to create a testimonial gathering page. While I could get a script developed, it makes absolutely no sense if I can buy a ready made script for under $50. And it includes all the bells and whistles. Today, I was found this script that looked like it had everything I needed. I was quite excited, downloaded a trial version, and installed it on my server. Much to my dismay, I discovered that to customize the forms, you need to open a .php file and manually change the settings in the file.

This reminded me of working with SAP. Sometimes the incredibly rich functionality is marred by crummy usability. When you come to use it, you can only wonder what the developer was thinking. The screens and user interface seem to added as an afterthought.

When I worked for SAP (in the CRM area), I worked at a client who was a Beta customer for SAP Leasing and Asset Management (SAP-LAM). As a Beta client, SAP listened to their requirements pretty closely, to drive the direction of the solution. We had a lot of interaction with the leasing developers in Germany. In fact, they flew in for a week at a time to discuss requirements and possible solutions, and showcase their development every few months.

Now, leasing is not a trivial solution. I can honestly say, that SAP-LAM is the most complex SAP industry solution I have worked with (and I have worked with quite a few). I was always amazed at the attitude of the developers towards usability. When challenged (because it was difficult to use), their comment was always: "We will worry about usability later". I always thought this was a crazy approach.

This implementation was scrapped several years later. I do not know for sure, but I think that poor usability was a factor in this decision. Particularly, when you start to compare the SAP screens, to the slick and appealing web user interfaces of today.

I worked at another client where usability was the prime reason that they chose not to use SAP-CRM. I spent about 2 months creating a custom user interface using GUIXT to try to convince them otherwise. The comment was made that the users "hated" the screens.

Both of these examples were several years back, so anything could have changed since then.

Here are some reasons to always consider usability in your custom solutions.

  1. The whole initial MySAP initiative is an example where SAP thought of usability afterwards. This resulted in essentially placing another layer on top of SAP to make it more usable. Adding another layer can only impact performance negatively.
  2. If users are exposed to the "raw" solution at this early stage, they develop and inherent dislike for it, no matter how good it looks later. And it takes a lot to change that perception.
  3. It causes "bad press".
  4. If you define the workflow (as the user would use the screens to do their work), the code becomes cleaner and more modular.
  5. It is so easy to mock up "dumb" screens in SAP using the Menu Builder and Screen Painter to give the user a feeling of how it will work. Web and other application usability designers, use the the same approach, when they mock up screens using simple HTML.
  6. It is difficult to train users if the usability is lousy.
  7. It really slows the users down with a non-intuitive process, thus affecting productivity.

Defining Usability
The following factors are things to consider when looking at usability:

  1. Screen design (this includes: field labels and placement; groups of fields and labeling of groups; tabs;...)
  2. Workflow - I am not referring to the SAP workflow functionality here. I am referring to how does a user do their work. Example: Input a customer # it in this field, tab to next field, input their street address, ... How do they process the data in the screens.
  3. Are the screens intuitive? And if not, is there some easy help available? When I press F1 on a field, does it give me a meaningful description?

My recommendation is:

If at all possible
Design and mock up your Screen and Workflow first

I think you will be surprised by the difference it makes.

Feel free to add you own comments and experiences to this article.

The SAPGuy

I did not buy this script because of the usability. I want to drive the car, not spend time under the hood !


  • John says:

    I totally agree, I’m pained by these clumsy user experience daily.
    I see usability as one of the SAP’s major challenge, especially when it aims to be “the Apple in enterprise software”; This is also a tremendous opportunity for SAP.

    • SAPGuy says:

      Hey John

      Glad someone else feels the same. I must say though that a lot of it has to do with the design approach. Yes, the UI look and feel is a bit dated compared to today’s modern GUI’s, but there is some powerful and pretty complete functionality under the hood.

      When I was working for SAP, I was amazed at how unimportant the developers considered the screen designs and workflows. I was working on one of the initial versions of the Leasing and Asset Management solution (IS-LAM).

      But this also extends to custom applications and extensions built into SAP. There is a custom development related to returns bar-code scanning at one of my clients that has resulted in over 120 defects in the last 5 years. But nobody wants to bite the bullet to rewrite it.

      Thanks for the comment.

      The SAPGuy

  • Vishal Mehta says:

    Sorry I saw that you’ve already experimented with GuiXT; Apologies for commenting in haste. Cheers.

  • Vishal Mehta says:

    GuiXT is one of the answers here. It is a bundled (but licensed for all features) scripting technology developed by an SAP partner – Synactive (www.synactive.com). All the points you’ve mentioned about usability challenges faced, are easily overcome with this “best practice” tool. I encourage you to check it out if the pain persists.

    • SAPGuy says:

      Hi Vishal

      You are correct. GUIXT & Input assistant is one way of customizing both the UI and the user workflow. I started using it back in 1999 at a client and have since introduced it into 4 other clients. It is a great add-on and I try to use it whenever I can.

      It has it’s limitations though, and we have pushed it to it’s limits.

      In fact I was one of the first people to introduce it into SAP-CRM in 2001. I approached Synactive at the time and they thought it would work – it didn’t. But in true Synactive fashion, it was working 6 weeks later. That has been my experience working with them. Great company to work with.

      If you start building more complex screens that require you to read database entries, you soon realize that it was never designed for that. It can be done, but it is somewhat of a workaround. And despite all claims, it can affect performance. Maybe I will add some articles about it at some stage.

      Best regards

      The SAPGuy

  • >