Why synergizing the products your internal applications will lead to productivity.
Most companies now have several systems they use internally on a daily basis that come from a variety of vendors based on the need. A common example in a large organization would be employees using SAP for HR-based needs, SharePoint for collaboration and document management needs, and Remedy for ticketing systems. Out of the box, these systems look very different and companies tend to leave these applications looking as they came, with slight modifications such as installing their logo to replace the application default.
One of the growing trends I am seeing in the market place is the synergization of these internal applications. These systems themselves have evolved to the point of allowing a large level of branding to be implemented on the UI, allowing designers and developers the opportunity to make these applications align with the company brand. As companies use of systems stabilize, meaning, they know they are going to continue using SharePoint, SAP, and Remedy for some time, they begin to realize they have islands of applications vs. a suite of applications tied together. Navigating to, from, and around these islands are cumbersome and inefficient.
When I engage in this effort, I often times help define the necessary steps to create success in this endeavor and have outlined those below.
Define a global navigation schema
Google has over 20 applications high volumes of consumers use every day. From Search, to Gmail, to Google Images, users bounce around to these services as if they are internal tools used in their daily productivity. As a result, Google implemented a "global navigation bar" at the very top of each application page that allows user to navigate across their suite of applications for efficiently, without having to use the address bar.
Now that most applications in the enterprise are web-based, companies can do the same for their employees at very little cost. By implementing a global application for your users, you will save them time and allow them exposure to the critical tools in your enterprise.
Define a consistent application navigation schema
It's also important to standardize the way users interact within your applications. Fortunately, applications like SAP and SharePoint utilize a similar interaction design model with a logo top left and tabs running horizontal to define the major areas of the application. Thus, it's easy to make these header and navigation elements look the same across these applications. By doing so, you give your users a consistent feel and help train them on usability, knowing they can expect a consistent experience across applications.
Define a consistent button format
One of the most productive changes you can make is to establish clearly a button look and feel to be used across all of your applications. Clients nearly always underestimate the importance of this, as many people have been trained over time to know the "ins" and "out" of specific applications. The issue with this is that new users, employees, contractors, or people new to divisions don't. Thus, by establishing a consistent look to define a button, users can always know which elements on the page are intended to be pressed to perform an action. It sounds obvious, but based on several usability studies I have seen, users can easily miss buttons as action elements and perceive them as graphical elements on the page, not intended to be pressed. It does not costa lot to implement this consistent change, and will save you a lot of time and money doing so.
Define a consistent set of icons that relate to actions
Very similar to the button initiative above, defining a set of icons to be used across your applications helps train users to know which icons relate to which actions. For example, if users have custom settings in their applications, they might have a little "gear" or "wrench" icon, to help them understand that when they click there, it is going to take them to a place where they can adjust the settings of that application. Think about this in the reverse. Say that you have several different icons across applications for adjusting settings. Users will quickly become confused and more often than not, you will see them attempt to understand icons for actions through trial and error, wasting your company time and money.
Define a consistent format for user alert messaging
Have a clear, consistent visual display and messaging format for communicating with users during application use is a very valuable improvement companies can make. I have seen upwards to 10 different ways applications do warnings, confirm actions, and identify tips for users during interaction. For example, say a user is entering invoice information and they type in a character, where there should only be a number entered. I have seen applications a) invoke a popup, b) display a message at the top of the page, c) display a message below the input field, and d) even just automatically erase the bad character they typed. This leads to a lot of confusion for your users because they are never trained to expect a consistent response. As in all communications, an inconsistent response will lead to confusion and cost time and efficiency when performing tasks.
More importantly, consistent alerts are not simply about display. It is also important to remember a consistent voice in delivering the message. This means, you need to have a consistent way you are telling the user something. For example, if a user has typed in a bad character in an input field, you might want to say "The credit card number field can only accept numbers". You would standardize this messaging by establishing a design pattern for the communication. For example, "The credit card field" means the receiver. "Only accepts numbers" means the data criteria. Thus your pattern is . Once you have the pattern, you can then define messaging accordingly. If then you have a situation where someone has uploaded the wrong type of document, for example, you have a model to go by: "This document library can only accept .Doc or .RTF files". Establishing a consistency in your messaging will help users more quickly process error messages or alerts and better train themselves on actions within your applications.
Define a global font
Lastly, the simplest improvement any company can make in their internal application experiences is one of the most obvious overlooked - using a consistent font. While companies are often very aware of their external presence, they often fail to enforce a consistent font use on internal applications. When I have discussed this with clients, they have often replied to the tune of "is that really that important?" thinking its primarily a marketing/vanity item. In reality, I help them to understand that much of efficiency for users comes down to creating consistent expectations and outcomes for users. Even the appearance of information, presented in a consistent fashion, helps users increase efficiency.
it's important to remember that consistency will lead to efficiency for your users. Creating a consistent environment across your applications will help your workers be more productive and better trained at accomplishing tasks.
iLink-Systems, the 2011 Microsoft Mobility "Partner of the Year" has an award winning staff of Interaction Designers, Visual Designers, and Mobility engineers to help make your internal applications a success. If you are in need of an audit of your existing internal tools, please reach out to me, my email is: firstname.lastname@example.org