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Why Workday's new threads matter - a lot

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy January 23, 2014
Changing a user interface is a tough job. Getting accepted is even tougher. Workday seems to be navigating these paths well and much better than competitors.

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Today, Workday rolled out its latest user interface. In the last five years, the company has pivoted from Ajax to Flash and now HTML5. Each time they've simplified things a little bit more. Why should anyone care. It's not like they rolled out a massive new piece of functionality is it? This is how Workday rationalizes the changes:

  • Consumer-Driven: Familiar visual cues and patterns influenced by popular email services, social sites, search engines, and web commerce make it simple for new users to login and use Workday without training.
  • Clean: Increased whitespace, subtle iconography, and simple fonts are just starting points of a more approachable visual interface for users to discover priority information and actions at a glance.
  • Consolidated: An overall shift to a single-page application view along with several new features reduces the clicks for a user to navigate through a business process.
  • Contextual: More intelligent and predictive features personalize the relevancy and security of information based on a user’s unique needs and previous behavior in Workday.

Changing a user interface doesn't sound like much of a deal but it is. Especially in enterprise land. Forty years of experience has taught me that making any change to a UI is fraught with danger.

When we moved from green screen to Windows back in the early 1990s, it took me nearly two YEARS to get my teams used to moving around screens with a mouse and using the 'Tab' key instead of 'Enter.' It was an enormous wrench and the intervening loss of productivity hurt us for a good six months. Today, I routinely hear about SAP customers who hate the old SAP GUI but have found ways to work around some of its idiosyncracies. Back in the day, wrestling with Sage interfaces among different clients was always good sport. You get the point.

As a SaaS vendor, Workday is committed to providing all customers with the same, albeit configurable software. That includes the user experience. It is an efficient way of delivering technology but comes with risks. Hence the company is taking its time to introduce the new UI and making changes as it goes through to April when everyone will need to be on the new look and feel. That gives customers four months to test with their own data before the change is enforced.

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Is this enough time?

Talking to the company, it believes that having 30 customer design partners spanning a broad range of industries is providing the kinds of insight necessary to make what is a significant change as painless as possible. Along the way, Workday says that it is simplifying the user experience and bringing greater consistency across desktop, tablet and smartphones. This is a significant accomplishment in a world not known for creating UI's that end users find both pleasing and effective for task completion.

What's interesting to me is that Workday is setting the pace for this aspect of development that competitors will find difficult to match. For example, Infor last year rolled out an entirely new design which drew gasps from the audience at an event I attended. Quite how many of its solutions have been transitioned is unclear and once again, acceptance is another matter. I've been told on several occasions that SAP cannot get all customers onto a single interface but it has been refreshing some components through its Fiori initiative. In contrast, Workday has established a tempo for change that customers seem to take well.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how Workday's financial users get on with the new look and feel. They above all users (with the possible exception of manufacturing) are the toughest audience to satisfy.

Disclosure: Workday and SAP are partners at the time of writing

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