Plant Visit 1We selected and designed enhancements to an ERP (Enterprise Resouirce Planning) software package to extend functionality to the users outside the corporate headquarters of a sanitation company. Our ERP team worked at corporate headquarters which was a nice building with cubicles, desks and conference rooms. When we visited our first user site, our vision of user needs was shaken to say the least.

These users worked at a meat packing plant from midnight to 6 am within concrete and steel walls, refrigerated rooms, high pressure water and chemicals being used all around them and bovine body parts at their feet. Wireless connections, much less devices, couldn't survive in that environment, wired connections were often non-existent. Safety ranked higher than anything else, certainly than spending time on a computer. The little time they had to do "paperwork" had to be easy and quick. Connectivity and user interface (UI) efficiency quickly became the highest priorities for our team as well as other features that headquarters had no idea the users needed.

The UI design team on any ERP project really must visit users’ workplaces to be able to design well. Through the life of the project, the team may visit user locations multiple times. Informational interviews, wireframe testing, formative and summative usability testing are all best done at the user's workplace. (For more on Usability Testing see our article.)

Implementation of ERP systems requires user centered design. As the name implies, user centered design is focused around the needs of the people who will use the system. Make no mistake, management makes the ultimate decisions for the users. They decide what functions of the business to analyze, design, build and test code for. They may even determine new functionality and the removal of old functionality. Management is in charge. Users, however, do the work and use the system from wherever they work. Usually that's not in the management suite, in the IT department or in the conference room where ERP project teams spend most of their time. Always remember that the real meaty design work takes place at the user's workplace.

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