What is a user interface strategy and why might you need one?


History repeats itself, but not exactly the same way as it did last time around. HR technology is no different. This will be first in a series of posts that looks at trends in HR tech.  Over the next few posts I’ll explore some of my thinking about global v local, suite v best of breed, stacks, hybrid v native, standards and/or innovation, social data and antisocial data. I’ll mix in some history, some present and some future gazing. Unlike in software delivery, I’m not going to promise release dates.

I was catching up with New Zealand’s HR tech main celebrity, Mike Carden recently.  He is the HR tech version of the Flight of the Conchords. And after we discussed the state of international rugby, we shifted to talk about software user interface technology, as one does.  I then decided I to write about it. 


A bit of history

In the 1990’s HR was the first department in organizations to deploy browser based self services for business processes. It seems odd now, but the idea of self service was revolutionary. Many HR departments pushed back, arguing that it would lead to data chaos having employees view payslips and change addresses.

It was not the mainstream HR vendors that led the first way of HR self service, it was a bunch of start up plays. These companies built self service tools that sat on top of the HR systems that many employers used at the time. An example of such a play was HAHT.

Pretty quickly that market broadened, a robust demand developed for portals. The employee and enterprise  portal became the must have enterprise accessories. At time everyone wanted to be the Yahoo! of enterprise software. Vendors like Plumtree closed deals with major companies, with the promise of “surfacing popular services from complex corporate systems to a broad audience.”  Eventually, Plumtree was acquired by BEA, and then Oracle in turn Acquired BEA.  In 2001 SAP acquired Top Tier, for 400 million, the largest VC backed acquisition of that year.  IBM acquired several portal related companies too.  Even Siebel got in on the Act, announcing a product called ERM. (Employee Relationship Management). 

So over a 5 year period we saw several  things happen.

  1. .New ways to access systems created a compelling promise of improved usability, process simplification, and systems unification. ESS became the must have sales feature in HCM
  2.  Vendors scrambled to rewrite their applications to make use of browser technologies. Some vendors wrote edge applications, but others built new applications, or rewrote large slices of code to become more browser centric. Most vendors followed a two GUI strategy, with administrative transactions in proprietary, typically windows based GUIs, and the browser for ESS. Manager self service was a problem child for most vendors (and still is). 
  3. Tensions developed between HR and IT over the portal strategy. Was the HR portal just a piece of the enterprise portal, or was it a separate, specialised tool for HR?
  4. Integration and performance challenges meant that much of the portal promise went unfulfilled.
  5. Portals become broader than just transactions, and included user relevant “content”, driving a demand for content management solutions. 
  6. The niche portal vendors were acquired or expired.
  7. The need to use the browser made software architectures become more modular, with at least some separation between application logic and the GUI.

From the mid 2000’s until recently, all was quiet in the world of front ends. While mobile created new opportunities, it did not create the level of disruption that the the browser did. Buyers and users could abdicate UX decisions to the enterprise vendor, and most did.

Things are changing though, and the fight over the front end is back on.  The technology and nomenclature is different, but the promise of improved engagement, unification and simplification sounds remarkably similar.  


So where are we at today?

  1.  New modes of UX are challenging the traditional screen input. Chatbot, Voice, IoT, mobile. The keyboard’s not dead by a long way though.
  2.  Many vendors have achieved separation between application and UX logic. This makes it easier for others to consume transactions in alternative UX.
  3.  API performance and standards are better now. 
  4. Cloud makes it easier for third party vendors to layer on alternative UX. 
  5. High levels of application personalisation in the customer / consumer world is driving demand for better personalisation in for employee enterprise applications.
  6. The promise of AI is creating significant hype, solving the all of our problems. 
  7. Pushing the process intelligently to the user at the right point of time, with the right data and questions is tantalising. 

So who will disrupt the state of UX?

  1.  Grow your own.  Better APIS, logic decoupling, design libraries, tools, languages,  and in-house design skills have lowered barriers to replacing large swathes of the standard UX with self developed, or at least agency/consultancy developed.
  2. Service players. ServiceNow and PeopleDocs (now owned by ulitimate) are examples of two vendors that increasingly make the play for the employee experience layer.
  3. Generic collaboration tool players. Slack and Teams for instance. It is increasingly possible to request data and transactions from these tools without seeing the application in the background.
  4. Specialist employee experience/engagement plays. While Glint was acquired by Linkedin just last week, there is a wave of startups looking to help organizations better engage with employees. Many of these players are seeking to relegate elements of the HRMS to the backend, and own the employee interaction.
  5. The larger enterprise vendors themselves see the threat, so they are all investing and talking up their AI and engagement offerings
  6. Vendors that have made several acquisitions are now seeking to drive more consistent UX across their portfolios. This means UX disruption too.

Concluding thoughts.

I don’t know precisely how this will play out over the next couple of years, but it will get messy. HR and IT leaders are going to have more options, and they will need to set a strategy and make some decisions about UX. 

As you evaluate your UX options, I’d make one request of you. Explicitly and aggressively challenge all vendors, big and small,  on their support of accessibility standards (WCAG 2.1) and more importantly universal design. Accessibility laws are strengthening around the world, but even if they weren’t, it is the right thing to do.