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The day Workday's wheel came off

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy September 12, 2013
Workday is readying new threads but there's a lot more than that to think about going forward.

new UI-2
Before anyone comes piling in with a 'WTF?' you should know that I am referring to the new UI coming in Workday's next release. And a confession: I also stole that headline from my colleague Phil Wainewright who whispered it to me as a suggestion during this week's Workday analyst tech summit. Priceless. Anyhoo...

Debuted at the Workday Rising 2013 conference and explained in more detail to a boisterous bunch of analysts, gone is what was then the novel Workday 'wheel' that spun around the screen (see below) and which has enjoyed huge success. In its place is a more subtle set of icons that are animated and organized along workflow lines in the sense of being organized the way Workday believes people look at screens.

As a side note, Workday brought onto stage the lead UI (user interface) designer on this project. He's a young guy who lists his likes as running and playing guitar. He's also been at startups in his early career and you certainly get that sense of youthful 'fun' in the way the UI works. It's a world away from the stodge of traditional enterprise class applications and a great demonstration of the senior management's belief that the future is in the hands of talented millennials.

I was pleasantly surprised. I have never been in favor of using Facebook as the UI metaphor for this class of application yet this team have got the closest I've yet seen to a clean UI that almost mimics a consumer application. Others will argue for the more complete picture painted (sic) by Infor. I'm not going to argue either way.

old workday wheel
'Old' Workday 'wheel' on iPad

Still with a little ways to go, the new UI is not quite a change in the UX (user experience) but it is a long way down that track. Of course some analysts managed to find something to gripe about. "I don't need images of the top three or four colleagues, I know what they look like," growled one.

However you view that remark it is perhaps a reflection of the way a UI change can generate all manner of heated discussion. The good news is that the company has spent a lot of time with its design partners, all of which you would know if I could reveal their names and all of which have oodles of experience in UI changes and the fallout that is inevitable among established users.

On that note, I talked at length with Aneel Bhusri, co-CEO about the facelift and the fact the company is moving to a two release cycle per annum cadence from next year.

From remarks at the keynote, I know that he would have preferred four releases per annum and for some customers, (especially those on financials), there will be continuous updates as incremental changes in functionality are brought to the table. Even so, I worry that Workday may end up delivering massive releases that become unwieldy for customers who are already struggling with three releases.

The fact of the matter is that however great cloud offerings may be in terms of reduced cost, transfer of risk back to the vendor, unlocking value and so on - there really is no way to avoid testing in environments where you have anything other than a vanilla implementation. Indeed we may never (as in the next 10 years) get to that sainted position.

Plusses and minuses

I also spoke with key executives at Workday arguing that it's almost like there is a paradox inside the customer base. On the one hand, they love the fact they get near continuous innovation but on the other hand, have yet to develop an internal release methodology that allows them to keep up with Workday's output.

I also argued that Workday might want to consider being more aggressive with customers on this point - by which I mean upping the service delivery to ensure customers are extracting sufficient value to encourage a higher cadence. Those same execs said they're working hard on this and I believe them. But as Bhusri said: "It's hard to argue with a customer base that wants two updates per annum," and which gave a welcoming round of applause to that announcement.

He is right of course but then I have been puzzled at how difficult it has been for customers to understand Worktags, one of what I consider Workday's best innovations. But then I am reminded that in finance for example, the world and his dog are married to the code block and it takes a LOT of explaining to get past that deeply rooted way of viewing the world.

As Workday's customer base becomes more 'mainstream' or 'less fast followers' the company is bound to encounter attitudes that reflect the relative laggardness (and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense) of those same customers.

I believe that Workday could do a better job being more public about these topics and in the process be more adept at convincing customers that speed really does matter. Even so I understand that with less than four percent of the available US market and already spinning up revenue at an annual run rate of $411 million, Workday has the luxury of figuring this out over time.

At the same time, I also believe the two releases  per year will be a relatively short lived practice. I have no evidence to support this other than a gut feel based upon what I see among businesses grappling with macro changes in the economic cycle.

There is so much more to managing talent as one of the biggest costs in any company these days that the pressure to optimize talent alone will force businesses to find new and better ways of bringing functionality into users' hands. Workday wants to lead that charge with a combination of HR, financials and 'big data' analytics and I have more to say on this topic following an as yet to be processed video I shot with product strategist Mark Nittler.

Proving ground

The new UI will be a good proving ground across a number of dimensions. In many ways it will be Workday's first big test about change inside a rapidly growing customer base that has got used to how Workday's 'brainstorm' community can influence change. If the UI does cause major negative disruption, Workday will know very quickly.

In the meantime, it is worth pondering what Stan Swete, Workday's CTO said in a post earlier in the week:

Probably the best example of embracing continuous change is happening on the service delivery side of our business. Workday has moved to continuous deployment of new features to a single code line. This move, along with the continuous background conversion of data for new features, enables us to complete updates for our production customers with less scheduled downtime. Application of changes to a single code line reduces the expense of maintaining multiple code lines around each update we do. Moving to continuous deployment also gives us the flexibility to continue to respond to our customers’ requirements when it comes to the number of updates we do each year.

I've spent many entertaining hours listening to Swete convince of the direction his technology groups are taking. While I've not always agreed with him, time and again, Workday delights with its ability to genuinely do things differently and being proven right in their choices. If they can do it in a hyper growth business where employee numbers are exploding, then it surely must be possible for others?

Endnote: apologies for the grainy image at the top and front door - taken on my phone's camera in a darkened room.

Disclosure: Workday is a premium partner and covered most of my travel expenses for attending Rising.

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