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Low-code/no-code tools have provided line-of-business citizen developers unfettered power to create apps and get them into production quickly. Unfortunately, there's no assurance these apps look good or function smoothly. In the rush to shove apps out the door, UI design prototyping with end-user feedback is fast becoming a lost art.
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Enter enterprise software giant SAP. In an effort to bolster user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX) prototyping, as well as open the process to collaboration, the company recently launched SAP Build. Using Build, business analysts outside of IT and stakeholders can work collaboratively to create interactive prototypes for usability testing. Through user feedback and usage analytics, those prototypes can be iteratively fine-tuned and the final results handed off to application developers. Build features a library of embedded design patterns and controls, along with templates and design principles that conform to SAP's Fiori-standardized device-agnostic user interface.
At Sun Chemical Corp., a Parsippany, N.J., global producer of commercial printing inks and pigments, Build is being used to design a product-selector application that helps the company's salespeople match the right product to specific customer needs. Sun is a longtime SAP shop, currently with 4,500 users.
"With Build we are creating screen mock-ups that we review with users," said Hennie Pieters, enterprise architecture leader at Sun Chemical. "Based on user feedback, we can tweak the design and navigation, then hand that functioning prototype to the developers who create the actual applications." For this product-chooser application, Build is creating prototypes with screen UI designs for both desktop and mobile devices.
Before using Build, Sun Chemical had used several other prototyping tools -- most recently, Balsamiq Mockups, which, like Build, features a UI library and a mechanism for obtaining user feedback.
In addition to Build's collaboration capability, Pieters said application developers like Build's Fiori awareness. "Because of the Fiori templates we get as part of Build, the look and feel of these prototypes are consistent with Fiori design guidelines," he said. "Our developers don't have to reinvent anything."
The underpinnings of Build were long used internally at SAP in designing its own application interfaces, according to Sam Yen, SAP's chief design officer. "We use this tool internally to start with low-resolution prototypes and get feedback in a scalable way from our customers," Yen said. "This allows us to go through iteration loops before we develop products."
No SAP, no problem
Though Build's primary audience is current users of Fiori and SAP's HANA in-memory relational database management system, Yen made it clear the platform is available to anyone doing UI design. "Build is not just a tool for SAP or Fiori; anyone can use Build as a way to quickly take whiteboard sketches and create functioning mock-ups for user feedback." To that end, a substantial portion of Build's 20,000 beta users were not SAP customers, he said.
Sam Yenchief design officer, SAP
Yen acknowledged that cloud and mobile application developers can choose from a marketplace crowded with UI and UX -- and, to a lesser degree, prototyping -- tools. That makes Build a latecomer, yet SAP is undaunted.
"The notion of focusing on design is relatively new in creating applications for enterprise businesses," he said. Large enterprise IT organizations around the world lack UI and UX developers, and they do not have UI design processes in place. "Helping organizations come up to speed with tools and education in a corporate setting is what we are trying to provide," Yen said. SAP has been honing its own design processes and tools throughout the past decade, and Build represents an encapsulation of what the company has learned, he added.
To prevent Build users from creating UIs that harken back to the first days of desktop publishing, where an utter lack of design sense combined with a near-limitless selection of typefaces led to results resembling ransom notes, Yen said SAP is putting in place libraries of templates, along with educational materials and best-practices guidance. "This is not just a matter of putting out tools, but also galleries, guidelines and education. We're taking years and years of best practices and using technology to amplify that."
Changing role of IT
As application-development capabilities continue to spread throughout line-of-business departments, IT is presented not with a need to change, but with a unique opportunity to remake itself for the fast-moving mobile age. "If you think about the role of IT going forward, we see digital transformation happening with every customer we talk to," Yen said. "IT should position itself as an innovation partner and not as an organization that is merely keeping the lights on."
Pieters agreed, noting that empowering stakeholders to perform tasks that do not involve writing code can help to trim IT project workloads. SAP recently added a way to pull the prototype into the Fiori Web IDE, or integrated development environment, he said. "When you can import a prototype into the Web IDE, a lot of the work is done for you. It's a big advantage."
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