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Rapid User-Centered Design for Mobile Enterprise Applications

By Milan Guenther & Thomas Hirt – August 8, 2008 • The definitive version was published in Interfaces 75, see the copyright note below

This is a summary of a design and research project carried out earlier this year within the Department of Design at the University of Applied Sciences in Düsseldorf. The University and LG Mobile initiated a project to develop innovative design concepts for future scenarios of mobile interaction. Students were drawn from the Interaction Design Course and the work done in small groups. The early stages of the project included generic research, and one of the findings from this was that there is a lack of well-designed mobile products and services for business users – especially SMEs and smaller and niche concerns.

This insight triggered the idea of designing a mobile user experience to support sales staff. The sales perspective was chosen to illustrate the concept of a holistic solution for a specific business problem and also to provide a realistic context for designing a mobile product. I started work on the project by considering and documenting the main drivers and constraints for design which became key design principles throughout the project.


Business users are likely to use work-related mobile products and services within a wider business process context. This business process also probably has strong dependencies on other processes including those that are automated via IT systems and those with people. Therefore, we can see that the context of use is a highly collaborative one and any successful application will need to support joint working not just in a technical sense but at the interface between people and technology.


It is a common misconception that if enterprise software is bought and rolled out by a company then users will adopt it because they have to. However, there are countless examples of the reverse where products are rejected or ignored by the intended audience because of usability issues, missed user or business requirements, and/or an overall lack of a positive experience with the product. While there are many ‘expert' products in the enterprise market these require a lot of training and therefore any solution must be usable for a wide range of users from initial use onward.


Corporate cultures together with individual personal styles and ways of working play an important role in business. This makes the need to support customization for the business and the end user imperative. At a deep level this means that the solution must be flexible enough to be deployed in radically different situations and companies and also that end users can feel that the application fits with their functional and emotional needs. Without this buy-in users will never fully adopt new products and services and use them to their best advantage, and application suppliers will have to build bespoke systems for every client.


The business scenario impacts on all aspects of the design and a thorough analysis has to go hand in hand with user experience design in order to create a coherent model. A coherent model is one that seamlessly integrates all related activities, tasks, media and devices in order to be effective, efficient and satisfactory in use.


The Client – ERCO Lighting

We chose to work for a lighting company who were fortunately also keen to work with a University. ERCO is a German company specializing in producing engineering hardware and software for architectural lighting. The company's motto is "we sell light, not illumination" and in order to deliver this the company uses highly skilled architects to act as on-site lighting consultants rather than using traditional salespeople and just selling lights. The company was ideal to play the role of a customer as they demand both a standard solution framework (to minimize cost) and at the same time a large extent of customization of the product (to meet their specific business needs). This partnership enabled us to focus on the creation of an efficient way of doing business and necessitated exploring how to best deal with on-site visits, accommodating varying user needs and corporate cultures. We then chose to directly engage with a potential key user from ERCO in order to understand the end-to-end sales process.


Requirements Gathering

Due to the nature of the design problem and our own values we chose a user-centered design process, but tailored this to the practicalities of the project, which were short timelines and limited resources. In detailed user interviews, we gained many insights about working practices including key tasks and priorities that our solution had to support. A holistic view of all user activities was important to avoid restricting our thinking about alternatives, and to help us to really think outside of the box to find the best ways to support users' needs in a mobile and collaborative context of use.

Because we did not want to interfere too much with the business and take up too much time with ERCO staff, we restricted ourselves to spending one day with one user. Of course, ideally we would have had a much deeper and long term engagement with users but even one day provided a wealth of data and in fact gave enough insights to deliver something very different from what previously existed. Spending a day observing our key user in his work environment, traveling to different locations and watching the sales representative interacting with clients not only provided a lot of valuable data, but also inspiration for different design ideas.

The experience also revealed a lot about the wider business context, which provided direction for designing a mobile sales solution in general, not just for the specific needs of ERCO. Most important was how such a solution could support consultants when interacting with clients. In addition, it was clear that the system had to facilitate simple parallel usage and orchestration of different software and hardware including spreadsheets, email, telephone, documentation and even route navigation, and accessing web resources.

From our one-day shadowing exercise, we quickly discovered how little time was spent on value-adding work in sales and how much time and effort was spent collecting and adjusting data in various different media, devices and systems. Another opportunity for innovation emerged from analyzing the current management of sales prospects, related client information and pending orders. Immersing ourselves in the salesperson's work made us realize that there was a large gap between our mental model of sales meetings and the reality.

Customers demanded a lot of professional advice, which turned the ERCO sales representative into more of an expert adviser than sales operative. It was not just our conception of the tasks and activities that changed but also the impact of the huge variations in the context of use. Among the locations that salespeople worked in were some unfinished sites without electricity, chairs or windows – our device had to function even in such a use context. Lastly, we also looked at the systems through which sales are processed and the desktop solutions that were in place to support this. Considering these two contexts of use enabled us to develop a deep understanding of the problem space and also candidate design concepts for improving on the current situation.



Collecting the findings from the shadowing activity resulted in a huge amount of data and required a lot of interpretation and synthesizing, a process that quickly felt overwhelming due to the increased complexity we had discovered simply by spending one day with our prototypical user. Taking all of this into account to create a simple but adequate solution became the key design challenge. In order to communicate our understanding we created various abstract models to analyses the current way of working and to discover opportunities for major improvements.

ERCO prototype screens

Figure 1: Prototype screens (click image for larger view)



Even before becoming familiar with the various user and business requirements, we started to create simple schematic drawings, paper models and rough mock-ups of early design ideas, to illustrate concepts and to directly map the research findings to concrete solution approaches. By creating an early vision of the design including detailed graphic elements, we could quickly define a visual direction and ensure a consistent graphical implementation of our interaction models and interface concepts, even though these designs in the end had almost no functional features in common with the final prototype that had gone though all the iteration and validation phases.

This activity was done in parallel with the creation and detailed specification of the business scenario. By mapping these two different approaches in stories and storyboards, we could locate missing pieces and create a consistent abstract model of objects, tasks and views for the interaction design and the information architecture of the application. Doing this together also helped to prioritize the different components by considering the various user and business needs at the same time. We iteratively refined these models to the point where we could extract candidate user interface solutions as well as final versions of the underlying functionality and system dependencies.


Participatory Design and User Testing

The prototypes that we developed were used for a constant, iterative validation and refinement of design concepts through user testing in order to address potential usability flaws, and to find the best solution among several alternatives. The fact that these prototypes were quite simple and rough supported the open exchange of thoughts, because it was clear that the users' comments could improve the design without causing too much effort.

As well as user testing we included shallow participatory design sessions. Here we asked participants for their input by getting them involved in sketching screens, illustrating processes, performance diagrams, and data representations, which provided an additional source of ideas that were very close to our business user's mind, and which directly impacted on the concept.


The Final Design Solution

Our solution combines a mobile device with a network infrastructure service and an enterprise software component. All elements the user interacts with are tailored to the underlying hardware, a modern and not too small touch screen with fast and reliable network access. The solution provides access to all critical data and necessary transactions independently of the user's current location. The concept also incorporates some key innovations for sales management that could only have emerged from the user-centered design approach we took. One defining paradigm is a network-based information architecture that shows all related data as linked objects and uses multiple views to support different aspects of the business tasks.

Depending on the current context of use the visualization provides an overview of a customer's projects or their contacts in order to review the order history in a highly integrated way. For example, the user can quickly access relevant goals and performance indicators or share a document with the client in situ and these differing views are easily switchable This means that sales staff can contextualize what they are doing moment by moment with the company's strategy, be more efficient, focus on value-added work and hopefully have a more interesting and fun work life.

Using standard components we were still able to offer a large degree of customization for the enterprise customer and the end user, which was one of our initial guiding principles. By customizing the product's visual appearance, integrating assets such as product catalogues and marketing material, and using it as a demonstration and communication tool for clients, the solution thus becomes a key element in the company's communication strategy as well as business process. So in the ERCO scenario, when the sales representative uses the solution it supports the whole customer journey including preparation before a customer visit, sharing of product sheets and development of tailored solutions whilst in conversation, and finally the processing and monitoring of sales.



In this project, we learned many lessons about user-centered design in general, about mobile applications and about design for business users in an enterprise context. The resulting concept is a big step forward to innovative usage of mobile user interface capabilities and shows that to do this successfully we need to think about the users, the device and the ecosystem that technology and mobile activities exist within. We received many positive reactions from LG Mobile as well as from potential users and customers of such a solution, which has the capability to create a real competitive advantage for the customer.



Thanks to John Knight for helping write up this project and Markus Luedemann for initiating it.

About the Authors

Milan Guenther
Milan Guenther has worked for over seven years as an interaction designer in Europe. Currently, after returning from a year spent at Nancy Art School in France, he is doing his diploma thesis in communication design at the Fachhochschule Düsseldorf, in a design-led innovation project at SAP Research. Before this he cofounded a software company working on virtual communities and collaborative workspaces, and has designed various business information systems and enterprise software products.
Thomas Hirt Thomas Hirt studied Product Design at the Dresden University of Science and Technology. He is head of the Digital Communications department at ERCO and a lecturer at Düsseldorf University of Applied Sciences, where he was visiting professor from 2003 to 2005. He has conducted workshops at Chinese universities and gives regular lectures at institutions such as the Management Circle, the DDV (German Designer Association) and the Design Center Stuttgart.


© Interaction (formerly known as The British HCI Group) (2008). The definitive version was published in Interfaces 75, Summer 2008.

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