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Inside the Enterprise UX revolution - a day at Infor's Hook & Loop

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 23, 2015
I spent a day with Infor's Hook & Loop design team in New York City. Their Enterprise UX ambitions go well beyond what I expected - but how will they get there? Here's what I learned.

Infor - no fugly software - UX
Good luck getting Chief Creative Officer Marc Scibelli to sit down. No sooner do I arrive at Infor's Hook & Loop studio, Scibelli is whisking me from demo to demo, showing off products yet to be generally-released, hitting me with a rapid fire narrative about why Infor is all-in on UX.

Breezing past white boards and design mock-ups, we banter about one of one Infor's most provocative UX agendas: "ending the tyranny of the super-user". Great Enterprise UX means employees self-start on intuitive designs, no longer needing to tap an overworked power user on the shoulder.

But ending super-user dependence is just the beginning. "Sometimes, the best UX is no UX at all," quips Scibelli. Wait - what? While showing me a 3D exception handling scenario in the works, Scibelli elaborates: "With algorithms embedded into the design, many of the exceptions would be processed by the system. You might not even need to deal with those any more."

Yes, a pretty UI is great, but the way Scibelli and team are now thinking, an algo-driven design might handle more of the headaches for you, freeing you up to slice and dice numbers, or search Google-style for elusive data or buying patterns. Oh, and serve customers better by providing them with relevant info in real-time. That's a big UX mindset shift from making screens look prettier, no? But how did we get here?

How Hook & Loop changed Infor's look and feel

When Infor CEO Charles Phillips recruited Marc Scibelli to build the Hook & Loop team, there were only a handful of designers. But the location in New York City soon became a hotbed, as Infor elevated UX to one of its three guiding principles (along with Internet/cloud architecture and industry micro-verticals).

Fast forward two years, and the Hook & Loop team now numbers 100+, co-mingling with Infor's executive team in a location where the executives, including Phillips, have no private offices (the executives work around a bullpen-style conference table). Meantime, the budget has grown from $1.2 million to over $11 million in less than two years. Plans are to expand the Hook & Loop team to 200 by the end of the year - but what's been accomplished to date?

The Hook & Loop team spent their initial phase building a fresh new UI across the entire Infor 10x product line. Dubbed "SoHo," the goal of the first overhaul was to create a "holistic" user experience while using a unified design methodology that is referred to as the SoHo Experience Guide. SoHo also included improvement of mobile UIs based on the HTML5-based 10x architecture.

Next phase: the challenge posed by the mobile worker (and data science)

Infor - Marc Scibelli - Inforum
Scibelli keynote, Inforum '14

But if the SoHo refresh was a big investment by enterprise UX standards, that was just a toe in the water compared to what Scibelli's team now aspires to. Announced at Inforum 2014, "SoHo XI" (to be released later in 2015) ups the ante significantly, pulling embedding data science concepts and process rethinks into the design.

To pull this off, Hook & Loop involved Infor's value engineering teams in the early SoHo XI design stages, grappling with how digital business can be incorporated into ERP process flows. Collaboration with Infor's freshly-minted Science Lab (based at MIT) means re-thinking what a data-informed user experience might look like, and baking algorithms and visual data into the mix.

Hook & Loop is also disrupting itself, if you don't mind me going there, by moving from "mobile first" to designing new applications specifically for devices enterprise workers now handle (or will handle soon). Tying these threads together, that means other UX ventures are in the works along with SoHo XI, including a work pattern rethink dubbed Clear Work.

Fine - but what about Infor's customers? How do their views get incorporated? For that, I needed to corner some Hook & Loop team members and get the skinny.

Pulling customer needs into the architecture

Hook & Loop developers never start with a blank screen. Their programming takes place within design controls like SoHo, which ensure color schemes and uniformity of navigation. A Hook & Loop developer can build within a framework established by Hook & Loop's Information Architects. But here's what's different: Infor's Information Architects have heavy interaction with customers prior to establishing a design model.

Infor - Pariza Bazl - UX - Hook and Loop
I spoke to Parisa Bazl, Senior User Experience Architect, about the tricks of her trade. Bazl told me that while customer interviews are helpful, on-site visits observing customers in their day-to-day has huge design impact. Observation yields design tips you might not get from persona interviews. "People aren’t aware of half the things they do," Bazl says, "So observation can be very powerful."

Example? During a recent observation session, Bazl's team noticed that customers were jotting down paper-based descriptions of certain transactions. "That showed us we needed an open text field in the UI, which we wouldn't have known otherwise." Knowing the need for such a field enhances the chance users will embrace the UI and find it effective, rather than stick with their old work pattern.

Another key lesson from Bazl: don't over-polish your work before showing it to customers: "We share with customers early and often - we don’t need a full prototype.” Bazl's team has also learned to pull in developers early in design conversations. She cautions: "Don’t go all the way into development without working out the UI kinks, and whether the design is technically feasible." That means working closely with Ted Kusio's software development team. Wrapping up our meeting, Bazl tells me something I wouldn't expect to hear from a software architect:

It's all about asking right questions. We are almost anthropologists here. Great design is really about human behavior.

New products: "paperwork killers" and mobile problem-solving

Hook & Loop has a whole slew of projects underway, too many to list here. Many were shared at Inforum 2014, including Glide, "A design paradigm that will allow users to naturally and quickly traverse data across multiple sources," and Rhythm, a cloud-based e-commerce platform that draws on consumer UI lessons.

While at Hook & Loop, Scibelli and team walked me through more unreleased projects, including:

  • An iPad demo for medical workers, which enables real-time personnel management amongst a medical team. Another iPad demo, featuring a quick toggle into visualized shoe products with data drill-down, was a custom customer engagement for mobile sales.
  • The 3D failure resolution demo noted earlier is called “Shop Floor Manager," and allows a visual exploration through exception handling and troubleshooting via visualized data relationships.
  • Then there is Clear Work, a "related initiative" to Soho XI, which brings enhancements to existing Infor software, driven by customer feedback. Clear Work is intent on being what Scibelli calls "paperwork killers," reducing workflow complexity in critical business processes.

Meredith Bates, Associate Product Manager, walked me through one Clear Work solution - a Customer Service Rep (CSR) scenario, where the amount of confusing tables were reduced, and the overall experience redesigned, informed by Google-type searching and Amazon-like product visuals.

Infor - Meredith Bates - UX
Meredith Bates - in demo mode

Bates told me the design challenge involves a product that "is very powerful and feature rich, but the information is scattered across disconnected screens." The end result:

Faceted search allows the sales rep to search and add a part to an order in the context of a specific customer - so their discounts and pricing preferences are automatically applied. We also designed a ‘dashboard-like’ interface for the sales rep to view relevant information all at once.


Diversity as a methodology, or "Why I want to work with someone different than myself"

As you can see from the Hook & Loop blog, diversity is considered a central design principle unto itself. The New York location lends itself to hiring across backgrounds and industries. "We are deliberately hiring people outside of the enterprise,” says Erik Hageman, Creative Director, during my last meeting of the day. "We hire everyone from industrial designers to storytellers," adds Chuck Wentzel, also a Creative Director. Hook & Loop staff members include a special effects pro who worked on The Avengers and Men in Black, and a former chief designer for Kenneth Cole. Eclectic hiring is a point of pride.

Erik Hageman - Hook and Loop - Infor UX
Erik Hageman of Hook & Loop

So if this diverse culture is a big deal at Hook & Loop, how do you make sure the hires stick? Hiring eclectically sounds hip, but what if teams are chaotic and poorly balanced?. As one of Hook & Loop's earliest hires, Hageman has seen the culture evolve. He has identified some common characteristics that make a great Hook & Loop hire:

  • self-starters who can drive projects forward
  • collaborators who are inspired by a sense of purpose
  • "self-aware" individuals who are able to put aside preconceptions
  • those who embrace a "culture of feedback", and who are willing to speak out
  • underneath the feel-good collaborative stuff should be a good old fashioned sense of urgency: "You need to be willing to be the last one to leave, if that's what it takes to see the project through."

Final thoughts

Enterprise UX is - and will always be - hard work. Infor's road miles have gelled into a more advanced methodology than most vendors (or enterprise customers, for that matter) currently have. But by pushing the design envelope with value engineering and data science teams, Infor is also throwing the cultural challenge down on itself. New ways of designing means the work silos of the past must be overcome.

And: new products must appeal to old school spreadsheet addicts while capturing the imagination of a generation that couldn't care less about Excel. Existing Infor customers on older releases need access to this innovation also, an issue Wentzel acknowledged to me is not an easy one - though it's a problem many enterprise software companies face (Infor has a cloud upgrade initiative called "Upgrade X" to help). Meanwhile, the dynamic nature of devices and data sources will keep design teams chugging caffeine.

User adoption is becoming an increasingly important metric for enterprise software. That's why UX is shifting from a "nice to have" to a serious competitive advantage. But the question Hook & Loop had the hardest time answering during my visit was the issue of "ROI on design." User adoption is one valuable metric that can be quantified, but the industry has a ways to go measuring the ROI of so-called "beautiful designs." Still, Infor's iterative loops with customers have already yielded plenty of "aha!" moments that validate the UX direction.

It remains to be seen how Hook & Loop will fare with this ambitious new phase of their UX agenda. Hageman referred to dialogue with executives about overall business direction, far beyond the scope of UX. That extreme buy-in is a big ol' clue to driving UX success. "I can’t overstate how important the support of the c-suite is to anyone trying to do this," says Wentzel.

But buy-in only gets you so far -then you have to create. And that's what Hook & Loop seems to relish. As Hageman put it, "We are constantly striving to do something better, we are constantly asking ourselves, are we a year ahead?” Time will tell.

End note: This article is part of a diginomica series I am writing on Enterprise UX, mobile apps design, and the skills required to change the user experience. For more context on Hook & Loop's creation and evolution, check out my colleague Derek De Preez's sit down with Marc Scibelli from Inforum 2014.

SoHo XI release date: Regarding the specifics of the SoHo XI release timeframe, Infor has told me, "We anticipate that Infor SoHo Xi will be delivered Spring 2015, and we will likely start seeing product adoption of the controls as soon as late 2015." Glide is slated for a 2016 release.

Image credit: Photos of Hook & Loop by Jon Reed.
: Infor is a diginomica premier partner. Diginomica funded my expenses to spend the day at Hook & Loop, which I initiated as part of my Enterprise UX series. This article would not have been possible without the diligent efforts of Infor's Chelcee Coffman, who facilitated my agenda and follow up, as well as the Infor UX design team that met with me in New York.

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