Saturday, November 21, 2009

Usability in enterprise Apps: Workday 9

Usability in Enterprise Applications

I recently saw a video of Workday 9, and was not impressed with the apparent usability of one of the highly touted features of this release. I tweeted my impression, and got a quick and friendly response from the team at Workday. They didn't complain about my bias or lack of information. Instead, as a great company should, they opened up and accepted the feedback. They offered me (and some Enterprise Irregulars colleagues) a briefing on Workday 9, to bring us up to speed and to get more feedback from us. My comments that follow are based on this briefing.

A Little Background

Workday is a company started by Peoplesoft's founder and some key Peoplesoft employees. Peoplesoft
was a ground-breaking company in many ways, and the founders and employees of Workday clearly intend to surpass their previous accomplishments with this new venture. Peoplesoft strove to change the way employers engaged with employees, and they practiced what they preached in their own company.

Workday's product is based on modern technologies, including services-oriented architecture (SOA), Software-As-A-Service (SaaS) delivery model, and Adobe Flex for a rich Internet experience.

The Wheel

My initial critique was based on a feature of Workday 9 called "The Wheel." At least, that's how I had seen it named in a number of blogs and news stories. Essentially, "The Wheel" is the "home page" for users of Workday 9. Here is a picture of "The Wheel."

Many modern applications have adopted a horizontal "tab strip" approach, where each tab represents a type of activity. Clicking on a tab typically brings up a screen with tasks related to the selected activity across the top just below the tab strip, with additional navigation or activities in a panel on the left (or right) of the screen, and with a large, rectangular workspace to the right (or left) of the navigation panel.

This "horizontal tab strip" approach is frequently used because it offers a very straightforward information architecture, and users can quickly and easily become (and remain) productive. This "L-shaped" layout pattern is used in business and consumer applications, including both browser-based and native client applications. Examples of web sites using this pattern in the consumer space include Blogger and Facebook, both with some variations on the theme. In the enterprise world, most portal-style applications use some variation on this pattern - an example from is also shown here.

Unlike this familiar horizontal layout for the top level navigation, The Wheel is a role-based, circular menu. Activities are represented by icons around the edge of a circle (or ellipse, depending on your window size or aspect ratio). One benefit of an approach like The Wheel is that the user can see more options on one screen than with a horizontal layout. However, "more" is not always equivalent to "better." In this case, having watched the demo, I remain
convinced that The Wheel is not an improvement in usability over a tab strip. The drawbacks of The Wheel, from my limited research and discussions with colleagues:
  • The Wheel makes it hard to predictably navigate to any particular activity. Humans navigate, particularly on computers, more easily in straight lines than in curves or circles. With a horizontal tab strip, you just keep moving to the right until you find your tab. With today's high resolution and wide-screen displays, this approach can include many tabs! With The Wheel, you'd have to move your mouse or trackball in a circular motion as you browse, and that is a harder motion to make (especially on my cluttered desk).
  • The Wheel may introduce significant usability problems for users when one or more new options are added to The Wheel, or taken away. All the learned muscle movements will have to be unlearned, because any change in the number of options will result in a new orientation for the other icons. This would not be the case in a tab strip, where you might go further or less far, but you at least don't have to change directions.
  • The Wheel uses a lot of screen space for a little functionality. The area between the window's enclosing rectangle and The Wheel - this space is wasted. Similarly, the workspace created inside the wheel also wastes the space between the inscribed rectangle and the enclosing ellipse.
Workday 9 Delivers Great Usability

That said, Workday 9 has delivered some great usability in virtually every other area I saw in the product.

When the user's mouse "hovers" over an icon on the wheel, a window pops up in the center (see the "Inbox" rectangle inside The Wheel in the Workday 9 screen shot above). This working space comes up remarkably quickly, and contains all the tasks and context needed for the user to be productive. This is great design. The same effect could have been accomplished without the ellipsoid Wheel, but enough on that topic!

Throughout the product, whenever the user is looking at data that can be linked to more detail, the data is a link the user can click to directly navigate to that detail. When looking at an employee in a report, the user can click on the employee's name and navigate to the information in the system this user can see about that employee, along with all the tasks this user can perform on that employee's information, such as giving that employee a raise or updating that employee's skills in the skills database. In the Projects screen shot shown here, you can see that each project name, the project owner, the project category, and even the number of employees working on the project are all links; clicking on the link navigates to the sensible destination to get more data, whether it is the details of the project, or the list of the employees working on the project.

Whenever the user is looking at a table of data in Workday 9, the user can export that data to Excel, sort, filter, and perform other operations on the data. This is extremely useful for status reporting, embedding in presentations, doing "what-if" analysis, and just making the system pleasant to use.


There are many other examples of great design in the user interface Workday 9. The visual design is good - appealing, speedy, and clear. The information architecture is well thought-out - goal-oriented, providing a reasonable set of appropriate options, and easily learned. The interaction design allows for a high degree of productivity.

A well-designed enterprise application speeds adoption, encourages frequent use, engenders better results with more use by individuals and by the enterprise, and eases the accomplishment of the system's goals. Usability is a key element of good design (along with good functional design), and usability is a quality frequently all too lacking in enterprise software.

Overall, Workday 9 is a great example of a design that is centered on making people very productive in getting work done - exactly what you'd expect from the crew at Workday. Congratulations! My hat is off to you - you've set a bar that will be hard for other enterprise software to exceed (but I plan to do so with my team at C3!).

  • I do not work for Workday
  • I do not take any money from Workday
  • My blog is not ad supported, and contains no ads from Workday
  • I do not work for any Workday competitor
  • I do not take any money from any Workday competitor
  • My blog is not ad supported, and contains no ads from Workday competitors
  • I have worked for at least two Workday competitors in the past (SAP and Oracle)
  • I admire great design, especially relating to usability, comprehensibility, and user productivity
  • I do not now use nor have I ever used Workday software, so my knowledge about Workday's usability, especially prior to the Workday briefing, was admittedly very light
  • I am not a user experience expert, just an interested novice

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