Can TMS Be Elegant?

Did you use tax software to file with the IRS this year?  Millions of taxpayers use software like TurboTax® and TaxAct® because it is easy to use and efficient.  These solutions have taken most of the 73,000-plus pages of tax code and over 4,000 changes made over the past dozen years, simplifying the filing process with excellent user experience.  You would think that enterprise systems costing thousands of dollars would also ensure an excellent user experience.

Instead, there are many examples of global companies having troubles deploying the new enterprise technologies. In many cases, the technology functions as intended, but is so difficult to use that productivity suffers.

There is a difference between UI (user interface) and usability.  Most will remember a time when the move to a GUI (graphical user interface) represented a significant change in the logistics software industry.  At the time, the GUI represented a vastly improved user experience over the text-based ‘green-screen’ application.  But now, thanks to the growing capabilities and user experience of consumer software, especially on mobile devices, the bar has been raised on what can be called a good user experience.

Creating great “usability” requires a fresh design approach that starts from the user’s point of view and drives a top-down application design.  A well-designed application is not only easy to learn, efficient to use, and meets the needs of the user, but it is a true delight to use.  True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want or providing a checklist of features.  A degree of elegance is required to achieve a high-quality user experience, with a seamless merging of the services of multiple disciplines. They must truly understand the business needs to be able to define smoothly flowing workflows; but also understand that visual styling to produce a pleasing interface can be a differentiator.

Logistics systems like Transportation Management and Warehouse Management are complex, but also need to provide an excellent user experience.  The better the experience, the higher the probability that the users will embrace the new system.

Logistics applications have traditionally been designed by mathematicians and engineers and these  designs reflect basic realities.  For example, the menus of logistics systems are usually based on access to key entities such as orders or shipments.  The idea here is that since the systems work by modeling these real-world entities, exposing the users to these entity-models must make a good UI.  However, in real life, planners do not worry as much about how these entities are modeled, as to the degree in which they make their day-to-day jobs easier.

What if the TMS proactively suggested potentially suitable orders to be consolidated into an existing route when a planner was looking at a shipment with low cube? That would certainly get the system some usability points for proactively helping the planner!

We all use Google®.  How about a Google-like global search within the logistics system where the user simply enters a value to see all transactions that match whether they were shipments, orders, or even items or shipping regions?  For example, an ice storm has crippled the Atlanta warehouse, and quickly searching for “Atlanta” will provide the planner with all the affected transactions.

It is not uncommon for a logistics system to allow the user to change the label or color or position of a button.  However, pushing this responsibility on the user does not equate to usability. To truly improve the user experience, the software vendor must start thinking in terms of the natural workflows that key users follow to do their jobs.

Logistics solutions should be more than easy and simple.  Next time you access your TMS solution, ask yourself: why can’t this system be more elegant?


Steve Vail has worked with customers in the logistics and supply chain industry for over 18 years.  Steve is currently responsible for marketing of Manhattan Associates’ Transportation Lifecycle Management solutions. 

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