ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) Systems are software applications that amalgamate data and/or combine the functionality of historically separate software systems. Examples of software systems that ERP software might replace or combine data from include accounting software, product inventory software, donor databases for nonprofits, and many others.
These days, most ERP systems are partially or wholly web-based. An ERP system may use Web Services to communicate across multiple software platforms from different vendors, or it may be a single software application that carries out all essential business functions for a company or nonprofit organization.
A decade ago, ERP systems were primarily used by large corporations. In the age of cost-effective custom Web applications, many smaller businesses are finding that they can save costs by implementing a light ERP system to carry out product tracking, invoicing, and accounting functions. Of course, in order to create true cost savings, an ERP system must be easy to learn, but still contain powerful functionality—requirements that can often be at odds.
Unlike many types of Web software that may only ever be used once or twice by a given user (e.g. an eCommerce website), ERP software is likely to be used for many hours every day by the same users. For many projects, this drastic change in usage characteristics will shift your design priorities away from those common to a public Web application.
User experience requirements like “very low error rates,” “easy navigation for first time users,” and “plenty of whitespace” may be replaced by requirements such as “ability to tab through form fields in order,” “no horizontal or vertical scrolling on data entry pages,” and “very low page-load times.”
Of course, low error rates and intuitive navigation for new users shouldn’t be tossed out entirely, but one of the ways ERP systems create immense value for the business owner is by maximizing the efficiency of the “power users” who spend most of every day using the software.
Some ERP systems include portals or extranets that allow customers to access information that is important to them. This may include information about product orders they have placed, staff members or contractors, invoices or payments, inventory they need to track, and much more. In these cases, customers of the business owner may access the ERP system much less frequently than a full-time data personnel, and thus user experience priorites for these portions of the application may shift back towards those for public web applications.
The best way to design or select an ERP system that is usable is to involve your users in the process. Interview users to find out how they work, what their primary goals are, how often they might use the software, and what types of devices they use to access the Internet. Develop personas to help keep design and development staff cognizant of who they are building the software for. Early on, use paper prototypes to gather feedback about navigation, terminology, application flow, and essential features. In short, use a User Centered Design process to select, design, develop, or implement your ERP system.