Openbravo's User Experience Lab
GUI design, ERP Usability and Visual Design

The Power of Visualization (part I)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

ERP is a domain that is associated with large amounts of data and complex processes. ERP software traditionally uses tables and forms to visualize the data and in many cases processes are not visualized at all. The reason for this is historically: Activities such as planning, purchasing, sales and financial management are mostly about numbers and the way these numbers are "visualized" has hardly changed in the last 100 years. This cash book still looks very similar to the one we use today. This does not make it any easier for people working with it, whether it be designers, developers, business partners or end users.

I believe that we can make things much easier by applying visualization in our every day activities and this does not only apply to building flashy user interfaces or creating sales forecast charts. Visualization can be used to gain insights that you would never have thought of before, it can be used to seduce customers, your boss, your peers and the opposite sex. It can be used to spur creativity, invoke discussion and generate alternatives. And the effort it takes is much lower than you´d think. Let me illustrate all this per activity and object type.

Ideas & Insights

So you have this great idea or insight, right? What are you going to do with it? Mostly, you need to get buy-in, so what do you do? Describe it in an email and hope people will understand it? We are surrounded by many smart people but most of them are busy and don´t want to use their brain cycles to understand what you want them to understand. By visualizing your idea or a problem you make it easier for your audience to grasp what you mean and because you made it less painful, they will reward you with their support (providing that the idea was good of course). Another happy side effect is that by visualizing your idea or problem, YOU will also understand it better. Those who are best in visualizing a problem, are most likely the ones to solve the problem.

Design & Development

From requirement to code is a long way and many things can go wrong. Traditionally business consultants distilled requirements, wrote use cases to capture what the system needs to do and the developer converted those in functional specifications outlining what technology architecture will be used. Nowadays most development companies also employ user experience designers who are in charge of designing the user interface. One of the most differentiating features of these people is that they tend to visualize ideas and concepts as early as possible in the design process. In fact, they start sketching the moment they enter a meeting room for the first project brief. This really helps the team to understand the (same) problem and to evaluate the different solutions before a line of code has been produced. The last months we shared all design work online with the community and solicited feedback in every step. This saves time & money, brings more and better ideas and results in better quality with lower risk. We should all be sketching more often.


The source of all data is in tables in data bases or in spread sheets. This is not going to change anytime soon but the way to present the data is much more flexible. An image (or video) says more than a thousand words so just have a look at this tremendous presentation of Hans Rosling who makes boring statistics come alive. Try to put this in a spreadsheet and make people understand it! There is a great opportunity for us to use visualization in ERP systems when we start to include business intelligence (BI) functionality. This will help us to view the data from different angles and to gain better and earlier insights than with using traditional data views. It also lets us interact with the data. A great example of effective data visualization is the NY Times interactive chart for the 2008 Olympic medal count. One of our community members shared some great ideas for data visualization and manipulation for Openbravo ERP.


Things happen over time and most of the time the path via which things happen is not linear but depends on certain conditions. This can get quite hard to understand without visualization. I was very happy when the Openbravo team started to model the most common business processes. Now we understand on the most abstract level what task flows we need to support. Everything we design and develop should be supporting those. Process visualization can be used everywhere: From a simple HR process for doing your expense report to helping a potential customer understand how the sign-up and installation will work and when the payment takes place. When I moved to Spain I had to apply for a health card (tarjeta sanitaria) but I was unable to find any process description (not even in words) which eventually made me visit 6 different administrative offices (all with very Spanish opening times) all over the city. Half way I had no idea what form was supposed to do what so I ended up dropping the whole pile of documents on the next desk in the process explaining to the staff: "I just need a health card, take the paper you need and tell me what to do next!". It took me almost a full day.

Pretty Products & Presentation

One study at the UCLA indicated that up to 93 percent of communication effectiveness is determined by nonverbal cues. That was about direct communication between people but it isn't hard to imagine that similar figures apply to other channels. The power of good looks can be used to your advantage. People like to use beautiful products, it makes them feel happy and confident. Your customers are people too, they like to use a handsome ERP system and look at beautiful presentations, pretty invoices and cool looking sales charts. Among techies, aesthetics are normally not considered to be very important, it is all about features: The iPod was a "lame product" according to a post by a Slashdot community member because it did not have wireless and less space than a competing product. S(he) Obviously did not understand that good design & simplicity can beat feature count. There is nothing shallow about liking pretty stuff and you better make things look good if you want to impress.

This was part I. In part II I will give you some tools and methods to let you do the visualizing.


Fitz said...

Thank you, Rob. Great article. The links and diagrams really helped deliver and reinforce the message. I'm looking forward to reading more material like this.

Sean Fitz.

Kowboy said...

Great post!