The Power of Software Usability: Insights from Infor’s Inforum 2012 Conference

Last week, Infor (an ARC client) held its user conference, Inforum 2012, in Denver, Colorado. This year’s conference drew almost 5,000 attendees. Infor is the third largest supplier of enterprise solutions with almost 70,000 customers.

Infor is a provider of several different industry-specific enterprise solutions. The company also provides best-of-breed solutions in areas such as financials, supply chain management, enterprise asset management, and human capital management. Infor uses a unique middleware solution to tie its ERP and other applications together and to provide a common user interface. Perhaps the highlight of the show was Infor’s demonstration of its innovative new user interface. This interface leverages social media approaches to provide users with unique functionality and usability.

It is difficult to describe this interface with words alone. To really understand its power, you have to see a product demonstration focused on a particular business scenario. Nevertheless, I will give it my best shot.

Infor 10 ION Workspace Homepage

While all major software vendors are attempting to provide their solutions with a social media-type experience, many potential buyers are understandably skeptical about the value of social media. Infor’s new user interface should go a long way toward quelling this skepticism. Typical enterprise applications use structured data and tightly control how process steps proceed. However, many business situations arise that are exceptions. These exceptions do not fit tightly controlled processes and users often require more than just structured data to resolve the problems. This is where social media-style solutions can play a role.

Users traditionally handled ad hoc problems by email and phone. But email and phone don’t really provide a convenient record of what is decided, who will do what, and whether these actions have really been taken. Infor’s interface combines a “social media” style message stream with event management and activity/resolution tracking.

Infor’s solution also has an enterprise subscription news feed based on the data that resides in various Infor applications. As an example, imagine a salesperson with a very large and important customer. That salesperson wants to see every invoice, potential late or short shipment, return, etc. related to that customer. He or she can use the customer master data – the customer’s ID number – to subscribe to that customer’s “news.” That news is then pushed to the salesperson so he or she does not have to continuously drill into diverse applications to track customer events.

Imagine that the salesperson is able to see that a particular warehouse does not have enough inventory to fully fill a customer’s order. The order is scheduled to ship short. This is where having the ability for various warehouse and transportation managers from different DCs to communicate as a group using the social media interface might lead to at least a partial resolution to this problem. Perhaps another DC can ship to that customer DC. But will it ship late?  If so, this option needs to be communicated to the customer.

Infor 10 ION Workspace with Content Overlay

The interface also has in-context business intelligence and content overlay. Basically, this means the applications are getting smarter. For example, imagine a stock control person in the warehouse that comes across a slot with more inventory than is supposed to be there. Once the inventory number is changed to reflect the stock adjustment, the application can automatically make a document appear that shows every slot in the warehouse that contains that stock keeping unit. The user does not have to open that document, but it is there and easy to access for viewing without drill down if desired.

The leading best-of-breed WMS solutions, and I include Infor 10 Supply Chain Execution in this category, are incredibly function rich. It is becomingly increasingly difficult for WMS vendors to differentiate based on a product’s depth of functionality. Usability, increasingly, will be one key differentiator. I’ve seen all the major SCM and ERP solutions and I have not yet seen another solution that impresses me so much from a usability perspective.

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