Monday, September 16, 2013

The future of Dynamics AX - part III

This is the third part of my blogpost regarding the future of Dynamics AX.

Disclaimer: Since I am merely following the evolvement of Dynamics AX from a distance and not part of Microsoft, all of this is of course only speculation in relation to the market of ERP and line of business applications.

Third claim: Users expect more

When Dynamics AX (at that time Axapta) started it's life around the late nineties, Windows was definately the modern, fresh and market leading operating system. The team behind AX had a few years before worked on a OS/2 version but decided to ditch the dual-platform strategy and focus entirely on Windows.

One of the reasons was most likely the fast adoption of the Windows platform in the market and the future growth aspects. Much of this was driven by the popularity of Windows 95 and the consitent user experience it provided. Back then as I remember, some of the key new innovations were the ability to share data in a simple way between desktop applications and the quite stringent user interface across app's. Before Windows it was not alway clear how to open and close app's, files, share data (cut/copy/paste) etc. or simply just move around in the app.

The heritage of Windows and other MS app's
The Windows operating system and it's MDI (multi-document-interface) paradigm was the premise for the design of AX. During the first years we had to invent a new concepts suitable for an data-intensive global ERP system. One example is the socalled "intelliMorph" system (what a name) which gave the UI Forms it's ability to resize according to the content  - and was at that time quite unique in combination with the underlying feature keys and the dictionary model designer. The model designer ("MorphX") ensured a high developer productivity and a fairly consistent user experience across the application (although some parts went a bit astray over time).

In short - during the first 10 years of the life of Dynamics AX the user experience was in my opinion very modern and appreciated by the users - because the comparison to other solutions was so much worse.

From the mid 00's with the growing influence by the Microsoft ownership, the UX of AX aligned closer to that of Microsoft Office - not a bad thing, but quite difficult because there are still big differences from an ERP solution to Word, Excel, Outlook and Powerpoint. However, the users seemed to appreciate the familiarity with Office - and the market share of AX just growed.

Back to the future
Now, where do I want to go with this.... with the history lesson in  mind, my claim is that what users are really looking for, is some familiarity across the app's they use. They don't want to have to spend time learning lots of different complicated key sequences, menu structures, hover mechanisms etc. It's a bit similar to a car where you would really get annoyed if the car manufactures placed the pedals differently (as you probably have experienced they actually do that with some of the arms for turn signal, wipers etc. and that's bad enough).

Back then, Windows was setting the standards. I don't think this is the case any longer. With the proliferation of devices, the introduction of touch interfaces,  the internet browsers and not at least Facebook, the defacto standards are nowadays legio.

Users have over the years been accustomed to really simple user experiences (meant the positive way). Where they don't have to think too much about how to work the application. And new intuitive gestures have been introduced and adopted. Many times I still find myself trying to right-swipe on objects on my Windows 8 tablet becajuse that's how you delete stuff in IOS...

The browser user experience is in my view probably the most common user exprience paradigm today. This includes much more WYSIWYG than the original Windows experience and it is in nature an SDI (single-document-interface) paradigm rather than the MDI of Windows.

The UX is not just editing the datamodel
ERP solutions and business applications in general have to be designed simpler. Even if this means we have to design eight simple pages instead of one complicated form. The reason being that users expect more (simplicity!).

For quite many business applications (including Dynamics AX) this basically means giving up on the idea that the application is nothing more that a forms representation of the data model.

App's need instead to be designed to the purpose they serve. For some years Microsoft has talked about role-tailored user experience for Dynamics AX. This is in fact absolutely the right way to go, but the fact is that very little have happened. Introducing a ribbon and some role centers does not make it at all.

Process is king
We have to get away from the data model and into the seats of the users. I know why it's difficult - it requires someone from the development teams in detail to understand the business processes and not just the underlying data model. It is hard work and on top of it all it needs to be designed to be customizable and flexible. This means it is not enough to create applications which can support a given process - it should be able to accommodate process variations as well.

In a solution like Dynamics AX with thousands of data tables and forms it's a very big task to make that switch - even for Microsoft. Nonetheless I believe that the solutions to rule  the future are the ones truly embracing process from the very beginning. And then working on which data to store afterwards.

The two keywords to look for are Process and Simplicity - two words quite hard to link to Dynamics AX these days. Let's hope there are some goodies on the way we don't know about.

This concludes my postings for now on the future of Dynamics AX. Feel free to object or comment as you please.


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