How to Use UX to Get the Most Out of Your ERP Solution

Ward Andrews
By Ward Andrews
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Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) is a type of software that large organizations use to manage their day-to-day operations by connecting a range of business processes. At their best, ERPs enable an efficient flow of data between different siloes. They can be a single source of truth and a central hub to manage the end-to-end workflow and data of a business.

But a system that large and all-encompassing can be challenging to build and maintain. How do you create a common data structure that can be effective across the enterprise? How can you accommodate workflows ranging from finance to engineering to operations?

And how do you create a relevant and compelling user experience that encourages adoption and usage of your expensive new ERP?

It’s not only digital businesses that need these solutions. Industries ranging from meat packing to manufacturing and construction are digitizing their operations through enterprise-wide solutions. We’ve worked with some of them to find ways to climb the Ladder to better user experiences, and we've seen the challenges that can stand in their way.

The Swiss Army Knife for Business

Many ERPs are like Swiss Army knives. They provide a basic structure upon which apps are built and customized for different parts of the business. The ERP powers each app, which then feeds data back into the ERP to update it as things happen in the business.

These platforms promise everything to everyone. They say they can do anything the business needs them to do. From marketing to operations to human resources, these solutions claim they can get it all done within a single structure. Their big selling points are usually a lower cost of ownership and increased productivity and performance.

Anybody who has lost the tweezers or tried to cut anything with the scissors from a Swiss Army Knife knows they have their limits. These tools are often good in a pinch but not always reliable, replaceable, or comfortable to use.

In the same way, the apps built on top of ERPs are only customizable to a point. The system can’t allow full customization because it would break the central structure and render the whole thing obsolete.

Usability vs. Customization

ERPs try to navigate a constant tension between customization and usability. An HR person needs different data, dashboards and UI features than a salesperson or operations manager. How do you deliver that personalized experience within a standardized environment?

Most ERPs that offer customization are not particularly usable. They offer watered-down UI components designed to work for the lowest common denominator. The average user has a hard time navigating all the customization options. It can sometimes take a team of developers fluent in the ERP's specific code to customize the solution to one part of the business.

On the other hand, ERPs that boast their usability are often less customizable. They need to maintain control over the UI elements throughout the platform to deliver a strong user experience. This limits how each part of the business can tailor the ERP to its specific needs. That might work for smaller businesses, but it falls apart in complex enterprises.

What is a business leader to do? Choose a more customizable solution and sacrifice usability, or choose a clean UX and limit customization?

All too often, the answer comes down to budgets. The larger the organization, the further removed the leadership team is from day-to-day operations. Executive leaders see the ERP less as a product that people need to use and more as a line-item in the budget. Some organizations with a lower tech maturity may not even have a Chief Technology Officer to think about these questions at a deeper level.

It can feel like there is no solution that works. Offer too many configurations and customizations and you may end up with a solution too complex to use. Offer a usable and comfortable solution and you might miss the details that can threaten your data integrity.

The Solution: A Task-Based Swiss Army Knife

What’s better than a general Swiss Army knife? One built for specific situations. There are now Swiss Army knives made for activities like hunting, fishing, cycling or camping. These have tools that help people do very particular tasks related to those activities.

That’s what an effective ERP should be. There's no getting around the fact that you need a centralized database and some standardization. But what if your HR, Sales, Supply Chain and other teams had their own user experiences built on top of that centralized structure? Wouldn't that be more likely to get adopted and used by all parts of your business?

The manufacturing line worker needs to see a limited amount of data related to the specific tasks they’re trying to do. The executive management team needs to see all the data across very function. Trying to build one experience that meets both of those needs results in an experience that meets none of those needs.

What’s important to all users is that they see the data they need in a way that feels comfortable and actionable. That’s going to mean something different to the manufacturing line worker than it does to the management team.

Frontline workers need less bells and whistles and a more tactical layout. They need data inputs and outputs mapped to their workflow so they can get the right thing at the right time. Management needs fancy dashboards and interfaces that allow them to click in and out of various levels of detail. Those are two very different Swiss Army knives.

Great UX Starts with an Informed Opinion

One of the most common questions we get from clients is how to create an effective dashboard. When faced with the challenge of simplifying a complex environment, dashboards seem the easy answer. They're not, at least if you’re doing them right.

Dashboards are tempting because they offer a way to put all the data in one place and then let the user sort it out. The problem is that most people don’t know what they want until they see it. Throwing a bunch of stuff onto a dashboard often leads to confusion and frustration.

By cluttering too many options into a limited space, you're putting the burden on users to figure it out. Unless they’re a power user with very clear and repetitive tasks, they're unlikely to do that. Most users don’t have the time or technical capability to customize a dashboard. Just because the option is there doesn’t mean that people will use it.

Dashboards are one of the most common examples of what happens when you avoid having an opinion about the UX of your product. Would you rather look at an unfocused dashboard or explore an interface that shows about 75% (or more) of what you’re likely to need?

In our experience, it’s far better to take an educated guess. Build out a basic level of UX that directs specific users to specific data and helps them do specific tasks. You’ll learn how to refine and make it even better and more useful over time. But if you overwhelm users with useless information that confuses them, you’ll make adoption that much more difficult.

How to Use Great UX to Optimize Your ERP

No matter the industry you’re in, or the ERP that you’re using, there are opportunities to use solid UX principles to make it better. The biggest risk you face in finding and rolling out an ERP across your organization is not picking the wrong one. The greatest risk you face is spending $10 million on an ERP nobody wants to use.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there is a one-size-fits-all approach. The best way to ensure adoption of your ERP is to put some UX thought and refinement into it. Take the time to listen your employees and understand how they do their jobs. Then build custom UX flows on top of that within the confines of your ERP.

In an ideal world, you have the time and resources to map out the end-to-end experience for all your user personas before choosing an ERP. You'll see your employees' challenges from their perspective and choose a solution that helps overcome them.

But even if you’re bound by the confines of a legacy system, there is room for improvement. Take the time to understand specific user workflows and identify how you can tweak the UX to fit. Find ways to show people all across the business how your ERP can help them rather than wait and hope they discover it on their own.

You’ll have more success adapting your ERP to fit your workflows than trying to get your workflows to adapt to the limitations of your ERP. We know because we’ve seen it time and again. We’ve seen how, to put it in Elon Musk’s terms, “building the machine that builds the machine” is often the ultimate key to business success.

Ready to Get the Most Out of Your ERP Investment?

We know UX and we know the challenges of adapting ERPs to a complex enterprise environment. Let’s chat about the realities of your situation and your hopes for the future. We can help you adapt your ERP to your needs and get the most out of your investment.