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

The Return of the Self Service Portal

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Portals have not always lived up to their expectations but this is changing now. Modern, integrated enterprise business software built on open standards can be deployed easily as self service portals for customers, suppliers and employees alike.

Some thirteen years ago, when I started working for a big blue consultancy company, portals were all the rage. Vendors were tripping over each other to create portal software and both media and technology companies tried to get their part of the portal market. At that time, web portals were used by many users as their point of access to the internet, hence its commercial importance. Companies also took great interest in portals for internal use. The promise of tying together information and applications of all kinds of legacy systems in one place sounded appealing. I worked on three intranet-portals in my first year. Although we made them all look great and both customers and users were excited at first, the productivity boost that we all expected, did not fully realize.

In hindsight the reason for the unfulfilled promise was simple: Just aggregating information from different systems in little containers (portlets) on a workspace does not add a lot of value if you do not have the possibility to manipulate it without leaving the portal. An example is an expenses portlet that shows employee expenses to be approved by a manager. In a millennium portal the user would be taken away from the portal to an external expense report application to approve the expense. The employee would then receive a notification in her expense portlet. The portal in this example solely served as a notification system! For this, you might as well just use email.

Open up your Business Application

Now, in 2013, portals seem to go through a revival. Thanks to improved integration, personalization, RIA (Rich Internet Application) architectures, workflow, customization, scalability, the possibility to create mash-ups and the usage of open standards, portals finally live up to their expectations. The most effective portals are part of the business application instead of imposing an additional layer on top of it. Openbravo 3 was architected with portal functionality in mind from the start using open standards and having a Workspace tab out-of-the proverbial box. In most implementations so far we have seen the Openbravo Workspace being used as an internal portal for staff using Openbravo to manage their business processes. But there is no technical reason to not widen the scope and give access to the Openbravo Workspace to customers and providers. With Openbravo you can open up your business applications to both ends in the value chain and provide self-service that will lead to increased productivity, reduced costs and higher customer satisfaction.

Establish a Relationship First

The idea behind the Openbravo self service portal is that customers, suppliers and employees have direct access to Openbravo. It is important to understand that self service starts after a relationship has been established with the customer or supplier. The Openbravo self service portal does not aim to replace your company’s branded web site. Converting prospects into customers and potential suppliers into trusted suppliers are activities that are best done with your existing toolset but once these parties are in the circle of trust they should be able to interact with your system in a more direct manner. Note that this is not because of security but more because of reduced guidance. To use an analogy for suppliers: If you let someone fill up your fridge when it is empty, this means that this person should already know where to find the fridge and what your needs are.

Dumb it Down

Enterprise business applications are complex by definition because of their breadth and depth in functionality. Users usually receive training and even then, ease-of-use is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of ERP systems. Among those, Openbravo 3 is probably the most usable business application suite on the market as it was redesigned in 2011 from the ground up with the end user in mind. However, this does not mean that you want to force your customers, employees and suppliers to use your system as-is. The best approach for a successful portal is to take out all functionality and GUI elements that are not absolutely necessary and only present that what is relevant to the user’s task at hand. In the first two examples below you can see that the only tab visible is the Workspace tab. We have taken out the multi-tab feature for the sake of simplicity. We did the same for the top navigation: the quick search and launch menus are hidden, as well as the application menu. Obviously it is up to you to decide what you want to offer to your users but we recommend to dumb it down as much as you can.


A few examples of self-service portals with Openbravo:

1) Customer Self Service for Coworking. With more and more independent professionals who are looking for a desk or a conference room, the coworking business has grown spectacularly. As in any other business, coworking needs contract management, resource reservation, invoicing and payments. Openbravo has recently successfully implemented a coworking self-service solution in one of the largest coworking spaces in the United States and two more European coworking spaces have signed similar deals. The Openbravo for Coworking Spaces solution will be launched during the Coworking Spain 2013 event.

Coworking Portal

2) Employee Portal for Business Consulting: expense reports, time allocation, team calendars, social media, requisitions, HR services, training. It is worth pointing out the difference with the expenses widget in a millennium portal that I referred to earlier in this post. In the Openbravo employee portal, the expenses are actually part of Openbravo rather than using an external application. This means that data only sits in one place and there are no delays in processing or synchronization.

3) Supplier Portal for Sports Equipment Retailer. Your supplier can manage many processes autonomously. Just to name a few: invoice submission, shipment tracking, master data management, payment terms management and contract management. Openbravo can manage all these applications in one single database that is accessed by the supplier. Obvious benefits are: better stock optimization, higher transaction speeds, less errors and greater supplier (and thus customer) satisfaction.

Supplier Portal

4) Customer Self Service for Opticians: Measuring, ordering and preparing subscription glasses takes substantial administrative overhead of which a large part could be done through customer self service. Especially for repeat customers this is a time saver but the retailer also wins with higher customer retention.

5) Partner Portal: Openbravo’s partner portal provides business partners direct access to contract management, subscription extension, marketing materials, training and more administrative tasks. This helps them become more productive and effective and leaves them more time attracting and serving their own customers.

Partner Portal