Main content

Inside SAP's UI overhaul - with Sam Yen

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 30, 2013
SAP has been undergoing a major design overhaul. Here's some illuminating quotes from SAP UI head Sam Yen and analysis on what I learned.

yen smaller
Sam Yen

When Sam Yen became the global head of design and user experience at SAP, I half-joked that he now had 'the hardest job at SAP.' With more than 300,000 screens and 20+ UI technologies to contend with, Sam's team inherited a big bowl of UI spaghetti at the exact time customer UX expectations are peaking and devices are proliferating.

After a recent progress report from Sam and his colleague Adi Kavaler, I'm officially handling the toughest job at SAP baton off to Vishal Sikka, who has a huge set of challenges/opportunities as head of all development.

As for Yen and his team, they have advanced their cause with the announcement of two product rollouts that support the 'renew and enable' part of their UI strategy. SAP Fiori, unveiled at Sapphire Now 2013, puts 25 of SAP's most common transactions in HTML5 format, with more to come.

Meantime, in a quiet General Availability a few weeks ago, SAP Screen Personas 1.0 is now an option for SAP customers looking to simplify their existing UI screens (a few caveats apply that I will get into - also note that Personas 2.0, which includes a HTML option in addition to Silverlight, is in ramp-up).

Originally developed as a customer co-innovation project by Denis Browne's Imagineering team, Personas is ideal for simplifying custom transactions and providing a more personalized experience on the classic SAP GUI (Browne would be really ticked off if I called this 'lipstick on a pig' so I won't, but you get my drift. Making the screens prettier is probably less important to most users than simplifying processes and removing unneeded fields anyhow - Personas does both).

Recently I had two briefings with Yen and Kavaler - a quick sit-down at the SAP Partner Summit in Miami and an in-depth phone call afterwards. My blogger colleague and frequent video victim (err, I mean guest) Brian Sommer of Techventive was present at both. Brian has already done a solid review of SAP's UI Makeover pulled from these briefings.

Rather than duplicate Brian's efforts, I'd like to share a few illuminating comments from Yen that add some context to what SAP is thinking - including Yen's views on the hotly-debated topic of whether these new UI products should be free - then I'll wrap with final caveats of my own.

SAP Fiori addresses the core - not the 'very long tail'

Fiori is intended to address core processes that invoke the most commonly-used transactions. Here was Yen's thinking as his team evaluated the UI problem and looked for a powerful-but-quick hit:

It's not that all of the new user experiences that we've introduced, especially in the last 10 years, have been bad. It's just a lot of things haven't been adopted. We had to ask the question, "Why haven't they been adopted, and how can we do things differently, so that we can break out of this?" Moving forward, this was the foundation of the new UX strategy, where we could say, "If we look at those 300,000 applications in terms of a long tail, what are the things that people are actually using?" It turned out to a very steep, long tail.

Therefore, Fiori does not try to solve all the UI issues in the long tail. Currently, the 25 Fiori apps address 30-35 percent of the most commonly-used SAP transactions and touch on an estimated 80 percent of SAP users in a typical large enterprise. Going forward, SAP Fiori will stick to this 'core' approach as new apps are added.

Fiori also addressed how those transactions are accessed. As Yen puts it, 'Usually, where I introduce Fiori, I talk about the notion of responsive design as well, one code line that automatically responds to phone, tablet, and desktop.'

SAP Screen Personas - dealing with areas Fiori might not

Not all transactions are common, and SAP users customize their code based intensely. Yen's estimate is that 30 to 40 percent of all code on SAP customer projects is custom code. But, for those like Yen and Denis Browne looking to have a broad impact on customer UI, the good news is that 80 percent of those users still access their screens via the SAP GUI, powered by SAP Dynpro. Screen Personas is built for that 80 percent. Yen likens the process of configuring Screen Personas to that of editing a Powerpoint:

You've got tools that are similar to PowerPoint that allow you to completely adjust the look and feel of the screen. It's a jaw dropping experience when customers see it for the first time. It's been really, really well received. It's not a silver bullet that solves every problem. Personas is not about adding no new features or functionality to your existing system.

Let's say you've got an old transactional screen. Typically it has 50 different fields on it. In your use case, you only need five fields. It's actually a very, very common thing. Let's say you've got five different tabs and a user has to click through five tabs, but at the end of the day, they're only dealing with five different fields across the five tabs. You can take all those fields, and put it all onto one page. That's why IT organizations finds it very, very easy to set up Personas. You don't require any coding.

 Should these UI enhancements be free?

You could make the argument that some, if not all, of these UI enhancement should be made freely available to SAP customers, taking a 'goodwill' or 'atonment for past-UI suffering' position. Yen begs to differ, and says he's got the sales (and sales pipeline) to go forward with the current pricing models:

Between Fiori and Personas, the market response has been absolutely tremendous. I know we had a debate last year at Madrid Tech Ed. I was sitting with the SAP Mentors, and getting grilled about the commercial aspects - why are we charging for this stuff.  We have reached a happy medium where we've priced it low enough where it's not going to require a board case for companies to invest in it.

At the same time, there is enough a price at this point where we're saying that there is value in what we've done here. The customers' response supports that. Of course, the customers would want it for free, but at the same time they are willing to pay for this.

Could SAP Fiori become the go-forward UI for SAP cloud apps as well?

During our phone talk, I asked Yen about how SAP Fiori fit into an SAP cloud UI picture that now includes UIs from different acquisitions as well as some of SAP's better home-built UIs (e.g. Cloud for Sales). His response was interesting, to say the least:

I never want to say it's black or it's white. It's going to be a blend, but the general direction is that we're converging. This is the first time since I've been here for 10 years at SAP, that we're unofficially - we have NOT made any official statements about this - telling customers if things are converging, they are converging towards Fiori. There's always going to be a need for exceptions, but it looks like everything's going to be converging towards Fiori. Fiori itself is evolving, but everything is going to be converging towards that.

More broadly, there's a philosophy behind Fiori: it's about taking large monolithic applications, breaking it down into role specific tasks, and organizing those things around a specific role. It's the philosophy of being able to have a consistent experience across phone, desktop, and tablet. You're using your HTML5 as a technology that makes it much simpler from a development and support perspective. If you look at something as simple as some HR approvals, we now have, at SAP alone, multiple products that do that. We've got SuccessFactors, we've got Core HCM, we've got Business ByDesign, and we have B1, just to name a few. There's no reason why you can't have the same user experience cut across all those things.

Keep in mind Yen is not making a formal SAP position statement on UI convergence here, but it's a story to watch.

Final factoids

There's some factoids worth considering as we wrap:

  • Both Personas and Fiori do have SAP backwards compatibility limitations, some of which are nuanced and out of my scope. Amongst other requirements, ECC 6.0 (the ERP kernel of ERP 6.0) is required for both. I hear reliable estimates that 70-80 percent of the SAP user base has now moved to ERP 6.0.
  • Fiori also has browser limitations, mostly tied to HTML5 capabilities. Amongst other things, this impacts SAP customers running versions of Internet Explorer prior to IE9, including a large number of SAP customers on IE8. Yen told us SAP is looking into some backwards compatibility support for some non-HTML5 browsers.
  • Most Screen Personas customers are running the Silverlight version as the HTML version is just now in ramp-up. Migration paths to the HTML version are expected to be provided, I'm not clear on the timeframe (this blog comment thread has some info).
  • Screen Personas is intended to simplify screens within a transaction. If an SAP customer wants to simplify across transactions, other technologies such as Portals will be needed.
  • SAP Fiori pricing is $150 per user and can be purchased online. The user license is perpetual, provides access to the 25 apps built to date, as well as future enhancements and access to new apps.
  • SAP Screen Personas pricing is not as public, but it is priced on a minimum of 100 users and unlimited screens per user. Some pricing details are being adjusted so I'm going to leave this one alone for now.
  • As for the exact customer numbers on Fiori and Personas, SAP declined to release those publicly at this time. 'Tremendous market adoption' was the most specific answer offered.

Final thoughts

Between Fiori and Personas, Yen's team has logged some quick important wins. Harder work lies ahead. The 'free UIs' debate is spicy and not easily resolved. I would argue SAP tends to miss out by not taking the full body plunge on their own best ideas, which in this case would mean giving at least Personas away without cost.

But others have countered that if they are free, these UI enhancements wouldn't be pushed by sales teams and put in front of customers aggressively. If Yen's team continues to notch customers at a rapid rate, they either win the free argument or render it a side issue.

The harder UI work is that customer experience goes well beyond UI. Re-imagining user experiences while maintaining simplicity of design, if not uniformity, across UIs is a monster challenge for SAP's diverse product lines.

For Yen's part, his team believes that SAP's growing collection of consumer-grade apps like Recalls Plus are moving it into a position where SAP can actually guide its own customers through UI design transformations of their own - a notion that would have been dismissed as absurd as recently as a couple of years ago. Yen says that is becoming a reality now (see Brian's piece for more on this). I would need to hear from customers on that, but given the results to date, Yen has certainly earned a fair hearing.

Image credit: Destruction of a white brick wall © mipan -

Disclosure: SAP is a diginomica premier partner as of this writing.

A grey colored placeholder image