Who is the corporate end user of technology and what does he or she want? The answer: Everyone and everything.
Everyone is the accounting clerk, the category manager and the chief executive officer, all of whom want quick access to corporate data bases and the ability to conduct ad hoc queries.
Satisfying the demands of end users, whose specific requirements and computer skills vary widely, however, is no simple task; yet the success or failure of new technology introductions often rely on it. As a result, information systems staff are facing increasing pressure to deliver solutions tailor-made to the user.
"Probably the worst thing we MIS people do is think we have all the answers. We often forget we are not the ones who are going to use the system," said Jerry Johnson, chief information officer, senior vice president of MIS, Abco Foods, Phoenix.
"You can spend millions of dollars on applications, but if it's too complicated and users don't buy into it from the beginning, they're not going to use it," he said.
David Hayes, director of management information systems at Associated Grocers of New England, Manchester, N.H., agreed: "User friendliness is even more important than capabilities of the product."
Retail and wholesaler MIS executives engaged in evaluating new technologies increasingly must solicit end user input. Among the key attributes users most often look for and demand:
User friendliness: Intuitive design and interactive features like "click on" help screens encourage further exploration and self-teaching.
Graphic interface: Users demand icons and pull-down menus and have little tolerance for character-based applications. The proliferation of home computers with graphic interfaces has set up the expectation for similar designs at the office, IS executives told SN.
Uniformity: A suite of applications featuring a consistent look and feel and operating on the same types of business logic will be more easily embraced by users than a hodge-podge of different programs.
Disregard for the end user's needs -- in the interest of expediting a project, for example -- will come back to haunt MIS, as Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, learned when it replaced systems following a merger.
"Not identifying the user requirements up front put us in the hole in the beginning," said Al van Luvender, vice president, management information systems. "It took us longer to get the system in, it was more of a hassle, and it kept costing us money year after year because we were always changing it" to satisfy the users.
"Now we take the approach that it's not MIS' system. It's the user's system and they have to be very involved in the selection, development and implementation because they have to take ownership of it," he said.
"We just implemented electronic data interchange, and the user was very involved. He was part of the project team," van Luvender said. "It came off very well because they did take ownership and it was their system."
Nurturing ownership of technology is particularly critical today as corporate staff in all areas are given workstations to do their own computing, rather than wait for MIS-generated reports.
Category managers at Giant Food, Landover, Md., for example, have been issued personal computers to access item history and perform movement analysis.
"Ease of use was an overriding concern of ours" in selecting user access tools, said Zach Decker, project manager, information systems and programming. "We had concerns about how intuitive is the product and how easily are they going to be able to make use of it and be productive."
Giant introduced an interface with simple, clear graphics so that users still getting acclimated to category management concepts would not be hindered by the very tools designed to help them.
"We made big screens with big buttons to help lead category managers and their teams through the system," he said.
In other areas of decision support, such as executive information systems, many of the same concerns about ease of use apply. Top executives, however, often have more detailed demands than other users, and they are not overly concerned about the complications it may introduce.
Executives at Associated Grocers of New England have considerable influence over the design of EIS systems, Hayes said. The versatility executives insist upon -- getting automatic reports and doing their own analysis -- presents some special challenges.
"An executive says 'I want to hit this button and I want to see sales of the top 10 stores by department.' There are also the 'what if' ad hoc reports, and you have to treat [the applications] very differently. The ad hoc reports can get out of hand. They can get difficult to do and become very labor-intensive."
Abco's Johnson agreed that the nature of executive information systems presents other issues, especially data security.
"EIS. We have to be real careful in that area. The information we're generating for the CEOs, CIOs and VPs has to be kept very confidential. It's also got to be very simple for them to get their arms around," he said.
Executives want decision support tools to provide a quick glimpse -- a snapshot of the business that can provide a heads-up to changing market patterns.
"Graphics is a great way to show trends," Associated's Hayes said. "If a corporate official is sitting in front of a PC, he's probably looking for trends. He shouldn't be looking for gobs of information; he can get that in a variety of other ways."
Graphics and design used in a consistent manner across various applications can help users get up to speed with a new program quickly because they are comforted and confident working with familiar formats.
"We're really striving to give our users a common look and feel from these various systems," said Larry Walsh, manager of retail technology, management information systems and electronic data processing, Carr Gottstein Foods, Anchorage.
"We still have quite a ways to go, but we're hoping to develop a method where different systems that may have different information sources will look similar" to the user, he said.
Applications developers call this capability "transparency" -- that data sources and all the twists and turns necessary to deliver information to a user's desktop not be apparent to them.
"From a user-friendly standpoint, if everything looks the same -- if menus look the same, the same keys are used for going to different screens -- it obviously makes for much easier training," added Riser's van Luvender.
Making the transition into new, more powerful tools does require training, but it can be minimal if the systems are intuitive and reward the user.
For Hayes at Associated Grocers of New England, the key to successful adoption of new systems is to ensure the user's first foray is a good experience.
"The secret is to make sure users are very happy and successful in what they try," he said. "If they are successful using the tools you give them, they will be willing to make the extra effort and go on to the next tool.
"The skills they learn will allow them to go more easily into the next data base," Hayes added.
Tony Rinella, director of management information systems at Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., said it's important to evaluate users' computer proficiency levels and select systems accordingly.
"Whatever technology we select has to be at a level the end user can understand and work with," he said. "I feel a lot more comfortable with graphical interfaces" and chose an Windows-based operating system rather than another platform that required users to be well-versed in syntax and complicated commands.
Abco also recognizes that corporate staff computer skills levels vary widely and plans to create an MIS executive position dedicated to assessing users' abilities to deploy technology most effectively.
For example, "In our accounting department, they may be able to handle [a spreadsheet application] without any problem, but if we tried to make the personnel people use it, they're often not qualified," Johnson said.
Finding consensus among users is essential in selecting new technology and ensuring it gets accepted, he said; otherwise, MIS can find itself on an endless treadmill. He suggests departments designate a "spokesman" for a given user group to represent their specific needs and wants.
"We work with that one person and get them up to speed. We make them become the decision maker and make them sell their people," he said.
Riser Foods also gets users heavily involved in pilot testing of new systems.
"Any pilot we put in is a user's responsibility. We make sure they're involved, make them actually set up the objectives they want," van Luvender said.
Bashas' eases users into the technology selection process and encourages their continuing participation.
"You've got to gradually feed them the technology, let them become comfortable with it," Rinella said. "Don't progress too quickly.
"One of the things we like to do is introduce people in a general meeting to what's coming up, get them excited. Show them what can be done. Give them demos and show them how their life will be a little easier," he said.