User Experience in EPM – the Planful EPM Platform

User Experience in EPM – the Planful EPM Platform

This post is the third in a three-part series on the topic of user experience (UX), where I’ll help you to understand the role of product design and user experience in the creation and evolution of the Planful Enterprise Performance Platform and how it affects you, the buyer or user of EPM solutions.

Lesson 1 of this series talked about the role of design and the metric of user experience. Lesson 2 focused on design for digital products, particularly software products and those used specifically by organizations to conduct business operations. (Miss one or both of the first two lessons? Read Lesson 1 here, or get up caught up on the series with Lesson 2 here.)

In this post, the third lesson, I will focus on the software category of enterprise performance management (EPM) in general and the EPM products of Planful in particular. First, let’s briefly review what EPM is.

 EPM in a Nutshell

The business software known as enterprise resource planning (ERP), dominated by industry giants SAP and Oracle and their end-to-end portfolio of applications and databases, has been said to provide the “nervous systems” for large organizations. ERP applications provide automated support for operational business processes.  These are the repeatable, day-to-day things businesses do to manage their ongoing operations. ERP application modules exist for managing almost every business function:

  • Purchasing and Accounts Payable
  • Billing and Collections, Accounts Receivable
  • Fixed Asset Management
  • Product LIne Management
  • General Ledger Accounting  

So while ERP applications are focused on running operations, EPM applications help manage performance of the enterprise.  EPM applications help organizations link their strategies to plans and execution. That includes the monitoring and comparison of results with goals and plans regardless of what things or processes are being tracked.

EPM is about measurement

EPM is all about measurement. It compares what happened to what was planned to happen.

The EPM Design Challenge

A complete EPM platform, such as that provided by Planful, enables the full five-stage performance management cycle:

  1. Planning of resource allocations against organizational goals.
  2. Consolidating financial and operational performance results.
  3. Reporting actual results or outcomes as compared to plans and objectives.
  4. Analyzing the reasons behind the outcomes.
  5. Modeling possible future business options and associated outcomes.

Organizations report and analyze their performance using different scenarios, or versions, of the data. Scenarios can depict various views of what has happened and what could happen.

The simplest scenario is to depict “what” has already happened. If we want to understand how our company performed last year, we compare the actual scenario (facts about how we performed, measured in consolidated, quantifiable terms like sales, COGS, operating expenses, etc.) with the target scenario (what we started out wanting to achieve) – and perhaps what we had imagined as the worst and best outcomes deemed possible.

If we want to know more about “why” we performed better or worse than we had planned, we can analyze our consolidated financial results for clues to what went right or wrong. For example, if sales in the US were below our target, can our data reveal patterns of performance that allow us to diagnose the problem? Did certain regions or states underperform? Did certain product lines underperform? If in response we make operational planning adjustments for improvement in the coming year, based on outcomes derived from our “what if” models, we can track progress with periodic performance reports.

The role product design plays in enabling this business process has several facets. Perhaps the most obvious is the effort to present the various aspects of the process within a single, coherent, and consistent platform environment.

Perhaps history’s first EPM platform environment was installed for Chilean dictator Salvador Allende in 1973. Called Cybersyn, its workings were primarily manual. Graphic designers made slides daily with national economic performance data, for viewing on-demand in a creepy situation room. It failed primarily because, by the time performance news had been produced for executive consumption, it was already known through less formal channels.

 cybersyn.png

Salvador Allende’s Cybersyn national economic performance viewing room.

UX Design for the Planful Platform

The Planful EPM platform is widely recognized for its depth and breadth of capabilities, reflected in its inclusion in both of Gartner’s corporate performance management Magic Quadrants for Strategic CPM and Financial CPM. In 2015, we added resources and focus to upgrade, clarify, and streamline how this platform is presented to those who use it. We first focused on the product’s appearance and are now moving more into its behavior, content, and functionality.

Successful products follow through on their brand’s promise by giving it appropriate and representative form. The platform’s continuity, which provides single-source access and interoperability between all five activities in the performance management cycle, is reflected in its appearance and behavior.

As you can see from the images further below, our solution looks different from the older personal computer operating systems shown in Lesson 2 of this series. They reflect a software appearance design trend called flat design, whose simplicity is in part a reaction to the bandwidth, performance, and rendering limitations of web and mobile products. Microsoft’s Metro design language is a good example.

metro design.png

 An example of Flat Design: Microsoft’s Metro UI design language (Wikipedia)

Designers quickly realized that, because of the market’s growing familiarity with software, they were free from the compulsion to make software UIs look and work as if they were tiny physical worlds. Flat design actually brings software UIs closer to the leaner styling traditions of graphic design and away from simulating the three-dimensional world of product design and architecture. Because most software content consists of words, images, and numbers versus physical objects and spatial orientation/manipulation, this is appropriate.

HA left nav.pngHA file cabinet.png

HA icons.png

HA icons 2.png

Planful EPM icons, reflecting “flat design.” Module navigation, object icons in context, toolbar icons, and object/status icons.

The set of Planful icons above reflects the influence of flat design. Icons, as well as key buttons and navigation selection indicators, reflect a customer-selected theme color. Shown is the default blue. We emphasize iconic representations for the set of system objects. Objects are the virtual “things” that finance organizations work with – such as business units, reports, plans, employees, processes, and aggregations of these. Just as with the file icons in an operating system, giving objects a picture to go with their names makes their type easier to identify.

The before/after images below demonstrate the work we have done to improve the appearance, or “look,” of the product, to clarify titles/terminology/iconography, and to improve several common interaction behaviors. The screen shown is used by managers to locate, edit, and track the status of their operational plans.

HA budget control 2015.png

 Planful’ Budget Control Panel, circa 2015.

HA budget control 2017.png

Planful’ Planning Control Panel, 2017. Greystar Real Estate Partners is a Planful customer.

The appearance changes evident above have been implemented consistently across the platform. Now that they are mostly complete, we’re shifting our focus to behavioral improvements across the platform. We’re also adding significant net new functionality in the areas of modeling, process and workflow management, and charting.

The Future

Planful plans to further improve the quality of its platform user experience by systematically adopting a state-of-the-art commercial software component library for the construction of its product user interface. These libraries are provided for use by major vendors, such as Google and Microsoft, as well as by smaller companies, for purchase or by license agreement. Component libraries are collections of pre-configured parts used to assemble a UI. Having been designed and built from scratch to fit and work together to create a harmonious whole, they accelerate UI development for the more conventional aspects of a digital product, such as window frames, icons, buttons, toolbars, error messages, etc.

Using commercial component libraries to build a software UI is sort of like shopping at IKEA, versus at more traditional housewares stores like Sears or Home Depot, or even building your own furniture from scratch. While each of these stores provides wide ranges of typical household products, those from IKEA are all designed to work well together as a system, both physically and stylistically. Although you may not prefer IKEA’s default minimalist, modern styling or its wide use of fiberboard materials, at least you know that purchased items will always match and use similar construction and assembly hardware.

As for Planful’ software product design plans, we don’t intend to re-invent the more routine parts of our enterprise software UI. We aren’t in the business of providing enterprise UI frameworks, but rather of providing EPM software solutions. Our plan is to choose a simple, proven, state-of-the-art library to cover the foundation elements and controls for our hundreds of screens. Google, for example, provides a software component library adhering to its design language called Material Design.

Google material design.png

Sample UI controls from Google’s Material Design component library (Wikipedia).

Using a library framework will ensure quality and consistent appearance and behavior for software’s equivalent of a house’s doorknobs, cabinets, faucets, walls, and floors. If we cannot find a standard library component to perform a specialized role, we can customize it into what we want.

This will free us up to apply our innovation energies where they are most valuable, in three categories:

1. Render the best possible representations for the content that makes up a customer’s EPM implementation

Planful Platform EPM content is comparable to the files and other data that we store on our personal computers, and to the ways that these files are organized and interconnected. Above, I mentioned our use of icons to represent the various types of EPM objects, such as reports, plans, dashboards, users, formulas, etc. This makes them easier to locate and identify in the UI. Also important are what we call inspection views: dedicated screens for showing and editing all properties of an EPM object.

HA inspection view.png

Partial view of a concept, in development at Planful: An “inspection view” of a model Dimension.

Our strategy is for the content container – the window frames, buttons, scrollbars, etc. – to quietly recede, while the content itself, in its unique arrangements and forms, becomes the focus. The appearance is less about Planful and more about the customer’s EPM content.

2. Orchestrate ideal default combinations and arrangements of standard library components while ensuring they’re configurable to suit the unique needs of EPM customers and their users.

Just like kitchens can be designed to optimize access to the stove, refrigerator, sink, and storage with the minimum steps and reach, page layouts and inter-related modules can be arranged and connected to make the completion of a software task seem effortless. Deciding how pages are laid out, what they present, and what they do is central to the UI design task. We seek to provide the most usable layouts for the most use cases.

3. Create new components, specific to EPM, that do things never done before

We are inventing new features and forms that show content and relationships in powerful new ways. These innovations will break new ground in providing insights and efficiencies specific to EPM. We will talk more about these when they become available. But in general, we see opportunities to make the modeling experience much more intuitive and visual, to make the design and execution of workflow processes much simpler, and to make business status much more accessible through the graphic visualization of data.

HA model view.png 

Partial view of a concept, in development at Planful, for depicting models and their relationships using “cards” arranged in a “map.”

You can think of our strategy as using IKEA for staple household items, but alongside a luxury couch, entertainment system, tricked-out chef’s kitchen, and craft-built dining table that are state-of-the-art and representative of a unique purpose and aesthetic.

In addition to these initiatives, is the ongoing effort to optimize the usability of current functionality. Our team listens to customer input from various sources, including our support team (called Customers for Life, or CFL), the Planful Community, usability tests conducted with users from our customer base, and our own intuition as designers and financial business process experts.

Conclusion

Digital Product designers are architects of virtual spaces and the tools presented within them. These are not real-world or fantasy replicas common to games or virtual communities, but rather worlds of synthetic, abstract information forms used to do work. Just as when we enter our homes, we occupy these spaces whenever we enter our devices to edit a document, shop online, or traverse a business application to complete a task.

Software is formless, malleable, boundless, and evolving. EPM products don’t (yet) represent the avant-garde of user experience. However, Planful is committed to providing an application platform UX of comparable quality to any major application provider – and to providing a proprietary user experience of content and functionality superior to that of any EPM vendor in the industry.

If you liked this series on user experience design for EPM and want to learn more, check out my recent book, “Bringing Numbers to Life: LAVA and Design-Led Innovation in Visual Analytics.” You can read it for free online or buy a hard copy. Book-related demonstrations, documents, videos, and other materials are available here.  And if you would like to see a live demonstration of the Planful platform, register for one of our weekly Live Demo sessions. 

Register for a Live Demo

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Budgeting, Planning, and Forecasting in 2017 & Beyond

Budgeting, Planning, and Forecasting in 2017 & Beyond

Budgeting, planning, and forecasting are critical steps in the enterprise performance management (EPM) process.

They provide a vital link between corporate goals and objectives, and operational execution by specifying how the organization’s valuable resources will be allocated.  Without budgeting, planning, and forecasting, the organization has no way to communicate when people will be hired, where they will be deployed, or how much money can be spent – and when – across departments, programs, and initiatives.

Budgeting, planning, and forecasting are especially challenging in 2017 due to several uncontrollable forces.  Examples include new revenue recognition guidelines, Brexit, policy changes being driven by the Trump administration, global competition, volatility in oil and other commodity prices, and exploding volumes of data to harness.

Although these processes are vital, many organizations continue to struggle through the annual budgeting cycle with manual processes supported by spreadsheets and emails, or with legacy applications that no longer meet the business needs.  

A recent webinar sponsored by Planful focused on the best practices organizations can adopt to streamline budgeting, planning, and forecasting.  Here are some of the highlights from the webinar.

Watch My Webinar Replay

Why Budgeting, Planning, and Forecasting Matter

Think of corporate financial planning as a roadmap of sorts.  Your business has goals – to expand into new markets, to grow revenue and profits, and to maximize value for stakeholders.  Budgeting, planning, and forecasting are the means to ensure companies can achieve those aims.

strategic roadmapCorporate financial planning lays out a strategy that will dictate the company’s direction for the coming years.  Annual budgets allocate the resources (i.e., people, capital, assets) to enable the firm to function in the coming fiscal year.  And forecasts provide periodic updates to budget assumptions, should they need to be revised as the year unfolds.

When you have a clear roadmap, you’ll reach your destination faster and in better condition than if you wander aimlessly.  The same holds true for corporate budgeting, planning, and forecasting.

Unfortunately, many organizations don’t have a clear strategic plan, struggle to create an annual budget, and then are unable to reallocate resources as business conditions change.

Signs You Need a New Budgeting, Planning, and Forecasting Solution

How can you tell if your corporate financial planning process isn’t working for your firm? There are a few warning flags:

  • Finance is drowning in spreadsheets – creating and consolidating budgets via Excel and email is becoming cumbersome. If it takes 15 minutes for the Excel file to open, that’s a big red flag that it’s time to change.
  • Long, painful budgeting process – if it takes from September until February to finalize the annual budget, it might be time to rethink the process.
  • Finance is spending too much time on data collection and compiling, not enough on analytics, the 80/20 rule.
  • Managing the business based on static budgets that are obsolete soon after creation limits business agility.
  • Challenges providing timely, accurate reporting to management.

    Finance and operations plans and forecasts are not aligned.

Spreadsheets and Email: The Wrong Tools for the Job

Spreadsheets are great – they’re easy to use, and they’ve got lots of great features.  And everyone uses email – it’s simple to transmit data to many people at once.  That being said, reliance on these tools can become problematic when it comes to budgeting, planning, and forecasting.

frustrated_accountantExcel and similar software applications were never designed to handle corporate processes that require collaboration.  Spreadsheet budgeting templates are sent out to managers.  Data is entered.  Rows are added.  Calculations are changed, then sent back to Finance for consolidation and correction – and Finance ends up spending most of their time fixing errors and dealing with version control.  Another issue with the spreadsheet approach to budgeting is data fragmentation.  Critical budgeting details and assumptions are left behind as data is collected and rolled up at the corporate level.

Corporate budgeting, planning, and forecasting overcomes those challenges and delivers enormous value, when it’s done correctly.  But the spreadsheet and email approach that worked when the business had 10 people and a few cost centers breaks down as the organization grows and evolves in complexity.

This is driving many organizations to move from spreadsheets and legacy applications to modern, cloud-based enterprise performance management (EPM) software for budgeting, planning, and forecasting.

Budgeting, Planning, and Forecasting in the Cloud

What does a cloud-based budgeting, planning, and forecasting process look like?  The first difference you’ll notice is that data integration is automated.  You can easily seed the budgeting process with the prior year’s actual financial results, existing staff and compensation information, and other critical budgeting information from your existing systems.

Cloud-AccountingSecond, Finance is no longer sending Excel-based budgeting templates to managers via email and then manually collecting and consolidating the details.  Budget templates are built into the cloud-based application and are accessed by managers via a web browser.  When they update their budget information and hit “enter,” the data is immediately stored in a centralized database for immediate calculation and rollup.

This approach makes life easier for managers, and Finance, and helps drive broader participation and ownership of the process.  The Finance department no longer owns the corporate financial planning process – everyone in the company has become empowered to shape budgets, plans, and forecasts to steer the company in the right direction.  And because cloud-based EPM software is optimized for anytime, anywhere access – managers don’t have to be on-premises to carry out these tasks.  They can participate at work, on the road, or at home if needed.

What Features Should You Look For?

You’ve realized that cloud-based EPM software is the right choice for your company.  But how do you select the right one?  Here are some key capabilities to look for:

  • Ease of Use – intuitive for Finance and line of business managers to learn and use
  • Power and Flexibility – supports a variety of planning approaches, from top-down to bottom-up, driver-based planning, and rolling forecasts
  • Control and Security – includes a standard chart of accounts, hierarchies, workflow, user controls, and audit trails
  • Pre-Built Applications – provides out-of-the-box support for common requirements such as workforce, capital, initiatives, and operating expense planning
  • Intelligent Use of Excel

    – leverages Excel as a front-end or provides an Excel-like user experience to leverage existing skill sets

  • Self-Service Reporting – allows Finance and line managers to create and run their own reports without IT support

 Best Practices for Corporate Financial Planning

According to Planful partner RSM, there are five best practices for improving the budgeting, planning, and forecasting process that can be supported by modern, cloud-based EPM applications:

  1. Reduce the number of cycles per process
  2. Simplify as much as possible
  3. Continuously evaluate past performance
  4. Drive accountability through accessibility
  5. Refine frequency and level of detail

You can learn more about these best practices and the key capabilities of cloud-based EPM software that support them in a recent blog article titled “5 Best Practices for a Less Painful Budgeting Process.”

 Learn More

Budgeting, planning, and forecasting don’t have to be as painful and stressful as they are for many organizations.  Leveraging the right tools and applying best practices make the process far simpler and create greater value for an organization.  To learn more, watch the webinar: “Insights on Streamlining the Budgeting & Planning Process.”

Watch My Webinar Replay

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How EPM Software Unifies Planning, Modeling, Reporting and Analytics

How EPM Software Unifies Planning, Modeling, Reporting and Analytics

Most finance professionals know that budgeting, planning, modeling, reporting, and analytics are all related business processes.

epm software

But are you using the tools that allow you to perform all of those tasks efficiently? The right tools can simplify and unify these processes so you can execute the management cycle on a repeatable basis as needed for your company and industry.

Just what is the right tool for the job? Certainly not spreadsheets, email and manual processes – it’s corporate performance management (CPM) software, also known as enterprise performance management (EPM). In fact, the cloud is becoming the preferred delivery approach for new CPM or EPM solutions.  This article explains how you can use this technology to automate and accelerate your business’ most important finance functions.

Bringing the Budget in Line with Other Processes

What does your current budgeting process look like now? If your answer is, “It’s disorganized and lengthy,” EPM software will help.

budgetingYou can’t create a budget without drawing information from several sources. For a start, you need historic financial and operating results. Then you need goals and objectives regarding sales and revenue for the future period, and those numbers need to be realistic. Then there are the fixed costs and overheads. And of course, there are the direct costs of running the business.

Cloud-based EPM budgeting software collects and stores all of this data in one place. You no longer need to hunt down the director of sales and marketing to find out the assumptions behind their expense budget. This information can be readily available within the EPM platform – making enterprise-wide budgeting less painfull.

A Model Modeling Process

A firm’s business model determines its very viability. In order to determine whether your company has enough resources to carry out daily operations, find new customers, and expand into new markets, it’s imperative that you have all of this information readily available.

financial modelingIf you don’t already have a solution in place that puts all of this information in one spot, the modeling process becomes significantly more difficult. And if you’re at a multinational company, you can’t exactly just pop down the hall to ask Ted from Manufacturing what last year’s numbers were.

Cloud-based EPM software unifies this data so that modeling becomes far simpler. Analysts in multiple departments can operate from the same set of baseline data and assumptions. Moreover, you can link financial and operational models so that you and the c-suite can quickly see the impact of business decisions on your plans and forecasts.

Make Reporting Timely and Actionable

financial reportingTimely and accurate management reporting is essential to keeping a study pulse on the business and having the agility to respond quickly to new opportunities and threats. Yet many organizations struggle to deliver reports and briefing books to management, relying on manual copying and pasting of information from different sources into static documents that aren’t easily updated as information changes.

What if there was a way to make management reporting more timely and accurate, without hiring a lot of new staff? EPM software can do that. It automates the reporting process so it’s not a hassle or worse, a source of panic.

Need to quickly report financial results to senior management, the board of directors, investors and other external stakeholders?  Spreadsheets and email have been proven to be error-prone and lacking in the proper controls and audit trails when it comes to collecting, consolidating and accurately reporting financial results.  Many organizations are adopting cloud-based EPM software to automate data collection and consolidation, and accelerate the financial close and reporting process.

Analytics Can Be Easy

Budgeting, modeling, planning, and reporting are all regular business processes. Analytics, on the other hand, is often more ad hoc. It typically takes place when specific questions arise.

analyticsBut that’s not the best way to approach it. Analytics should be a continuous process, providing insights into the “what” and “why” behind financial results and help decision makers model “what if” future scenarios. Firms need ongoing analytics in order to gain deeper insight into their data, and key business trends.

Cloud-based EPM software makes analytics easier. You don’t have to spend time and effort searching for the information you need, and the solution can automatically generate the charts, graphs, or other visualizations that make the data come to life for everyone who needs it, even those without finance backgrounds.

Budgeting, planning, modeling, reporting, and analytics shouldn’t be separate, silo’d processes. Cloud-based EPM software transforms them into a unified, seamless set of processes. To learn more, check out the white paper, ‘Introduction to EPM in the Cloud’.

Download the White Paper

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5 Best Practices for a Less Painful Budgeting Process

5 Best Practices for a Less Painful Budgeting Process

Here we are in mid-March, and by now, most of you should have completed your 2017 budgeting process.  But while the memory is fresh, this is a good time to evaluate how well your process went.

Was it fast and efficient?  Or did you struggle through an extended process with spreadsheets and email or legacy applications that you’ve outgrown?

If the latter is the case, watch the replay of a recent webinar titled “5 Best Practices for a Less Painful Budgeting Process.”  The webinar was sponsored by Planful and included a presentation by Peter Emerling, Director of Technology and Management Consulting at RSM – a world-leading provider of audit, tax, and consulting services to entrepreneurial growth-focused organizations globally.

Watch My Webinar Replay

The webinar included a review of the challenges organizations face in budgeting and planning and a review of the 5 best practices for a less painful budgeting and planning process from Peter Emerling of RSM.  This was followed by a Planful overview of the advantages of cloud-based budgeting and planning solutions, and a demonstration of the key features in the Planful Enterprise Performance Platform that directly support the 5 best practices highlighted by RSM.  Here are the highlights of the webinar.

The Vicious Cycle of Budgeting

RSM’s Peter Emerling reviewed what the firm sees as the typical budgeting process.  This process may vary for a lot of companies, depending on their size, complexity, and maturity.  We believe that the 5 phases identified here are consistent across most companies:

  1. Set Goals and Objectives
  2. Planning and Preparation
  3. First Budget Iterations
  4. Adjust and Finalize Budget
  5. Monitor and Measure Results

Peter commented that too often he hears clients talk with dread about their upcoming budgeting process, that they’re too busy because they are in the middle of the process, or that they’ve finally completed the process in late January early February – even after starting in September/ October. Why?   Well, the words “budgeting, forecasting or reforecasting,” or some other variation, carries with it a negative connotation for most organizations.

For many, this process has become a vicious cycle of dread, pain, late nights, and general frustration. The obvious question here is – why don’t companies just fix the problem?  Well, for many companies, they simply don’t have time after the process is complete to evaluate their overall process and identify opportunities.

Peter then reviewed the 5 best practices that can make each phase less painful, more efficient, and enable the budgeting process to drive better insight and add greater value to the organization.   The 5 best practices are highlighted in the section below.

Using the Cloud to Support the 5 Best Practices

During the Planful segment of the webinar, I reviewed how enterprise performance management (EPM) has evolved over the past 10 years and the advantages organizations are achieving by moving EPM processes, including budgeting and planning, to the cloud.  During our presentation and demonstration of the Planful Enterprise Performance Platform, we highlighted key features that support the 5 best practices identified by RSM.

Reduce the number of cycles per process

  • Workflow and process management
  • Rapid collection and consolidation of data through standard templates

Simplify as much as possible

  • Ability to leverage global drivers
  • Ability to perform scenario analysis
  • Ability to use modeling to support more complex analytics when needed – keeping the budget process streamlined

Continuously evaluate past performance

  • Ability to manage multiple versions
  • Ability to easily compare budget vs. actual

Drive accountability through accessibility

  • Ability for end users to access reports/dashboards and drill down into data
  • Ability to automatically distribute budgeting and reporting packages

Refine frequency and level of detail

  • Ability to do line-item detail planning (i.e., buildup of data at a level below GL data)
  • Ability to do detailed workforce planning
  • Ability to do capital expense planning
  • Ability to create rolling forecasts

Lessons Learned

The key takeaways from the webinar were that maximizing the value of best practices requires the proper balance of people, process, and technology.  Most organizations lack the technology to achieve this balance and continue to rely on spreadsheets, email, and manual processes to support budgeting and planning.  Investments in cloud-based EPM platforms, like Planful, can drive measureable ROI within the first year of implementation.  Many organizations are reaping the benefits:

  • Automation and reduction in errors
  • Acceleration of budgeting and planning cycles
  • Improved alignment between finance and operations

This was an informative webinar that generated a number of questions from the audience.  To learn more, watch the replay of the webinar “5 Best Practices for a Less Painful Budgeting Process.”   You can also register for a live breakfast event sponsored by Planful and featuring , expert speakers from RSM, in a city near you..

Watch My Webinar Replay

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4 Risks in Relying on Excel for Financial Close and Reporting

4 Risks in Relying on Excel for Financial Close and Reporting

Excel has been around since 1985. It was one of the first spreadsheets to use a graphical interface with pulldown menus and to have a point-and-click capability with a mouse.

Millions of users have become Excel devotees since its debut, with a significant following among finance and accounting professionals.

There are many reasons to love Excel. It’s easy to use and the program has many fantastic features. That being said, it’s a poor choice for managing the financial close and reporting process.

Why? (1) Excel isn’t designed for collaboration, (2) Excel is error prone, (3) spreadsheets are difficult to govern, and (4) spreadsheets lack data management and backup capabilities. Let’s explore each of these risks in more detail.

Excel: Designed for the Use of an Individual

If you’re an accountant or bookkeeper at a small company, you’re probably the only person handling the business’ financial records. The accounting is performed within one system and you’re not not receiving reporting data from any other sources, so you don’t need to consolidate results or report to regulatory bodies. In that case, Excel can be a viable tool for financial reporting.

Happy_accountantHowever, the situation is different at larger organizations with finance or accounting departments consisting of many people managing multiple divisions and cost centers. Team members need to share information with one another, especially during the period-end close. That’s where Excel fails.

Excel wasn’t designed as a collaboration tool that can support a corporate process, nor is it a database designed to support multiple users simultaneously entering and reviewing data.

During the financial close and reporting period, collaboration is paramount. Firms require a tool that enables, not impedes, working together. Cloud-based enterprise performance management (EPM) software allows them to do that. Multiple users can enter data simultaneously, and anyone who’s authorized can view information from anywhere, regardless of whether someone is inputting it or not.  And with the EPM software doing the heavy lifting in the cloud, users can leverage Excel as a front-end for reporting, analysis and data entry.

A Case of Irreconcilable Differences

Have you ever looked at an Excel spreadsheet and wondered if the information in it was completely accurate? There’s a good chance it’s not. Ray Panko, a professor of IT management at the University of Hawaii, reviewed spreadsheet field audits conducted by various companies between 1995 and 2007 and discovered that 88% of spreadsheets contain some kind of error.

SpreadsheetsHow is that possible? Well, it’s not that hard to imagine, actually. If your company has multiple branches or subsidiaries, and all of them use Excel files for financial reporting, it can be very challenging when you’re trying to consolidate all of that data into one spreadsheet. You might accidentally omit numbers while you’re copying and pasting. And you have no idea whether the data was entered correctly in the first place.

Accounting and finance departments always need to be able to trust their numbers, but it’s never more important than during the period-end close and reporting process. Cloud-based EPM software eliminates the need to spend valuable time and resources reconciling multiple Excel files. With cloud-based EPM software, working from a centralized database, there’s a single version of the truth, and you can trust the numbers.

Excel Isn’t Compatible with Good Data Governance

The aforementioned risks of using Excel for financial close and reporting are intrinsically linked with another drawback: no one can govern the data.

Let’s say Rebecca is a team member of the accounting department at a large, multinational company. She creates a spreadsheet to track the financial data for the marketing team, and Rebecca formats it in such a way that it makes sense to her. When her colleague Mark in Marketing looks at the Excel file, he doesn’t understand what Rebecca’s done, so he makes changes tot the spreadsheet, or generates a new spreadsheet of his own.

The creation of multiple spreadsheets in a variety of formats runs completely counter to the idea of good data governance. In this situation, the CFO or department head has no control over how spreadsheets are formatted or what information goes into them. When it comes time to close the books, who knows whether Mark or Rebecca’s spreadsheet is the most accurate?

Cloud-based EPM software can be a vital part of good data governance practices. It gives the company control over which information is entered, stored, and utilized – and by whom. So, when financial closing time comes around, no one has to wonder whether they can rely on the information stored within the software.  Full audit trails are available to trace numbers presented on the balance sheet or income statement back to their source.

Unlike Other Excel Alternatives, Excel Files Aren’t Backed Up

Accounting and finance professionals can trust their data when they know it’s up to date. With Excel files, you don’t know if that’s the case.

We’ll go back to the example of Rebecca. She saves her spreadsheets on her workstation’s hard drive. Rebecca isn’t as diligent about backing up her files as she should be, so when a ransomware attack strikes her firm just before closing period, she loses access to everything stored on her computer. The IT department restores documents on the network drive, but they can’t bring back the most recent version of Rebecca’s Excel files.

cloud EPMWith cloud-based EPM software, data is constantly backed up. No one ever has to worry that they’re looking at an out-of-date version of information, which is especially crucial at financial close time.

At the enterprise level, spreadsheets simply aren’t an appropriate solution to collecting, consolidating and reporting financial results. Accounting and finance departments need to be absolutely confident that their numbers are accurate so they can comply with government regulations and so that leaders can make the best decisions. Cloud-based EPM software enables them to do that. To learn more, read this white paper which highlights the advantages of managing financial close and reporting in the cloud.

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User Experience in EPM – What is User Experience Made Of?

User Experience in EPM – What is User Experience Made Of?

This post is the second in a three-part series on the topic of user experience (UX), where I’ll help you to understand the role of product design and user experience in the creation and evolution of the Planful Enterprise Performance Platform and how it affects you, the buyer or user of EPM solutions.

As I mentioned in Lesson 1 of this series, the property of a software product known as its user experience (UX) is really a metric.  What the UX metric measures includes 1) whether users accomplish what they expect to accomplish with the product, 2) the associated pain or delight experienced in accomplishing the end result, and 3) based on the first two measures, whether said users are likely to continue using said product, recommending it to others, etc.

The user experience resulting from a product usage episode is largely a result of the properties of the product itself – in other words, it’s design and construction. All products used by people can be measured with this metric. But the UX concept has become mainstream due to it’s association with the use of computing technology or “high tech” – namely, the hardware and software product landscape in which we all spend more and more of our time and energy.

airplane user exp.jpg

The user experience of an early airliner. Not bad at the time considering the alternatives. The pilots sat outside!

The practice of deciding and specifying what a technology product will have, do, act like, and look like is what I like to call digital product design. Although we traditionally refer to businesses as providing either products (cars for sale) or services (ride hailing), or a mix of the two (renting/leasing a car, many Apple products, in-home entertainment systems), many digital products are such ambiguous product/service hybrids that categorizing them as such begins to lose meaning. With enterprise software, for example, traditional “on-premise” software systems – made up of on-site networks of servers, databases, and highly customized software solutions – are considered to be owned by the customer. They are even formally valued and taxed as such, as capital expenses versus operational expenses, with associated depreciation effects. I’ve come to settle on the word “product” to refer to all forms of delivered value.

vizio TV remote.png

My Vizio TV remote has buttons for software services baked into its hardware.

Design for Digital Products

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) systems deliver value comparable to that of on-premise systems, but via the “cloud.” The difference? With the cloud, customers don’t have to “own” anything other than the business data and the devices used to contact, display, and interact with the necessary software products. In the end, all that really matters is the metric of customer utility and value created, all things considered, in exchange for the costs incurred, and in a sustainable revenue model for the provider. With this point in mind, I use “product” to refer to any (figurative) vehicle that delivers value to a customer, whether in the form of an ice cream cone, legal advice, leather jacket, or hydroelectric dam.

Digital products involve some sort of computer hardware/software relationship. But because of the almost infinite number of ways to build and program them, there are many more bad design choices than good ones. While at this point it is hard to design a truly unusable car (although BMW’s iDrive interaction model came close, and new trends, such as electric drive and autonomous operation, will provide great new opportunities), digital products are so new and ever-changing that major gaffes occur regularly. Think exploding Samsung phones, glassholes, Google Wave. Car companies are now mostly relegated to cheating on their emissions systems.

Add to this the fact that, when compared to thousands of years of architecture, hundreds of years of consumer products, and over a century of cars, we have only been designing for digital for the past 50 years or so. And of that span, only the past 20 years or so of products can be considered as targeting the consumer mainstream. We digital product designers are still finding our way and often making it up as we go along. It’s fun and frightening at the same time.

The point is that, although the term “user experience” is now mainstream, it’s in fact nothing new. It’s merely more relevant now because more of our time is spent being mediated by some sort of digital product. Our great-great grandfathers complained about the design of their plows, the attitude of their oxen, and the ineptness of their hired help – we do the same about the usability of our healthcare portal.

Google wave.jpg

Google Wave. Too much, too fast, too different, and it failed. Author: Akae. File licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Although user experience is an imprecise and elusive metric to understand, its influencing factors are more concrete. For enterprise software, these include the design and performance of the system as it is experienced by its users, as well as other associated systems that make up its training, help, support, and community ecosystem. SaaS enterprise business software is intended to be consumed with commonly available, standard hardware systems.

Thus, SaaS designers rely upon the standardized input/output capabilities of desktop and laptop computer hardware, operating systems, and internet browsers. Extra effort is needed to deliver comparable experiences on mobile devices, which include tablets, phones, and now watches, cars, and faceless voices.

The Elements of User Experience Design

UX designers focus on the design of the software, which is best described as the effort to design, at one level, how the product looks on the display screen – its appearance – and how it works when interacted with – its behavior. On another level are the factors of what the product has – its data, or content – and what it does – the commands it enables, or its functionality.

To clarify the factors of appearance and behavior, let’s compare two familiar product designs from the early 2000s: MacOS and Windows XP. Both products provide similar functionality and content – namely, a computer operating system and access to one’s personal files, networked resources like the Web and connected file servers, and a variety of bundled and purchased applications. Each uses a similar mouse-based WIMP interaction model (for Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointer, which was invented primarily at Xerox’s PARC research center, initially adopted by Apple, and then copied by Microsoft, resulting in an unsuccessful Apple patent lawsuit).

MAC OS.png

The 2000 Apple OSX, now MacOS, introduced the “Gel” visual design language. (Wikipedia)

Windows XP.png

2001’s Windows XP, with comparable features to OSX, but with different rendering and ways to access files. (Wikipedia)

While the basic components of both systems are similar, as the above images show, they’re rendered to appear differently. The OSX window frames have a faux “brushed metal” appearance that resembles the control panels of high-end period consumer stereo equipment. The icons are realistic and three-dimensional, and the buttons appear to be made of glass. Steve Jobs had demanded that the UI appear to be “lickable.”

Windows XP components appear to be made of reflective colored plastic. As for the interaction, certain details will immediately stand out for anyone who has used both systems. While OSX put a single menu bar atop the screen, which changes as one switches applications, Windows placed them within the application window itself. OSX apps appear in the Dock at the screen’s bottom, while Windows apps are launched from the Start menu. Although these and other behaviors can be altered with personalized settings, the system defaults are kept by most users.

Both products use the the depth perspective technique of overlapping to create an illusion of the screen being a view into a small 3-d world, as with a diorama or a fish tank. This is enhanced with background photos or patterns that suggest depth of space. When working with papers on a desktop, we similarly use the depth dimension for organization. We order papers into stacks, and place them near or far based on priority and need. This model formed the basis of the original “desktop” UI metaphor: That computer records and viewing windows can be treated similarly to conventional paper documents. Both platforms have since followed the trend toward the simpler and less metaphorical “flat” appearance, which I’ll detail in lesson 3.

To contrast products that differ in their content and functionality, I will use two digital encyclopedias: Microsoft’s Encarta and Wikipedia. Until being discontinued in 2009, Encarta provided a richer and more dynamic rendition of the world’s knowledge than was ever possible with bound and printed encyclopedia sets. It was known for its slick appearance and behavior.

Wikipedia, although delivered via the Web and appearing relatively crude in comparison, ran Encarta into the ground by virtue of its superior functionality and content. By providing registered users with the supervised functionality to create and edit entries themselves, in an open-source model known as “crowdsourcing,” Wikipedia provided content so broad, deep, and multi-lingual that Encarta was never able to keep up.

encarta.png

The rich and elegant appearance of Encarta 2008 Premium on Windows Vista (Wikipedia)

wikipedia.png

Wikipedia on Wikipedia (Wikipedia). A crude look, but effective.

Wikipedia is a victory of content and function over form and behavior. Many think that functionality and content are unrelated to UX design, that they’re instead related to the role of product management and strategy, which is fair. My perspective is that a product’s users do not make such distinctions. A product either meets user needs or it doesn’t. Not finding a desired encyclopedia topic on Encarta is a bad experience, regardless of its elegant screen design. Good UX design is as much about empathy, practicality, and planning as it is about artistry and clever interaction. This is not to suggest that those in the digital product design role make every product decision, but rather that product design teams learn and adopt traditional design values and methods, per the Design Thinking movement.

Taming Product Complexity

In general, the more a software product has and does, the more valuable it is. However, the resulting complexity of feature-rich products make them more difficult to design well. More content and functions mean more things in the product to present, arrange, track, name, correlate, etc. That then creates more opportunity for conflicts, contradictions, and the condition where users are overwhelmed with too many options or steps in a task, known as cognitive overload.

While more power and flexibility is often better, the increased clutter and confusion can bring diminishing returns. This dilemma is less of a factor with simple consumer apps such as Twitter or Uber. However, it looms foremost in the effort to provide software capable of managing the financial performance of an entire organization. Regardless, users and customers eventually come to demand that their business software meets the UX standards of consumer products.

A defining aspect of managing complexity is behind what I call the clicks versus clutter debate. When asked to explain their view that a product is “not very usable,” many computer users will reply with one of two things. Either their task completion was made tedious by requiring “too many clicks,” or they were overwhelmed and confused by being presented with a screen cluttered with too many unwanted or confusing options. The art of balancing these and other competing demands – as part of the task of organizing such environments into a coherent landscape of topics, actions, and “places” within a product – is called information architecture.

Planful recently changed how the sections and subsections of its Maintenance module are presented in the product’s user interface. Before, all sections were presented in a single, large “pop-up” menu when the Maintenance Module icon was clicked. While this provided single-click access to each of the product’s configuration screens, it was a lot of information for a user to contemplate at once. In our new design, we provide a set of tabs correlating to the Maintenance sections, allowing us to present sub-sections with summary descriptions. While the former may have been more convenient for some experienced users, the latter is much more accessible and forgiving for new and infrequent users.

HA maintenance 2015.png

The Planful pop-up Maintenance Menu, 2015.

HA maintenance 2017.png

One of several sectional menus from the 2017 Planful Maintenance module.

To make the EPM design effort even more difficult, every customer organization runs differently and thus needs its software tailored to its needs. While most digital products enable some level of personalized settings, enterprise software implementations for different customers can vary greatly, even when purchased from the same vendor. The final solution used by organizations is configured by a team of implementation experts from both the vendor and customer, and often 3rd party consultants, who use the baseline EPM product as a starting point.

Thus, the challenge for EPM software product designers, and all other enterprise software designers, is to design a system able to adapt to, and be customized for, a variety of circumstances. Unlike designers of most commercial websites, for example, enterprise software designers must enable each screen design to be usable even when implemented in a variety of different configurations and usage scenarios, some of them impossible to predict. EPM designers need to be skeptical, practical, and always be thinking of how their designs address potential usage adversity.

It’s less a fashion contest than a giant effort of compromise, where the competing interests of multiple customer needs must be reconciled into a balanced and adaptable solution. The goal is to provide the most value for the most customers with the least customization effort. Deployed solutions need to present workers with screens they understand and can operate efficiently. Cloud computing’s efficiency in managing these dilemmas is a major factor in its rapid adoption.

Ongoing Efforts at Planful

Planful introduced a significantly upgraded product user experience in 2016. We began with improving the product’s appearance and elements of its information architecture. Upcoming releases will reveal our efforts to improve the behavior of several key module components, as well as initiatives to introduce major new functionality.

HA UI 2015.png

A Planful product screen, circa 2015. Note the bulky tabs and redundant toolbars, paging controls, and table frames.

HA UI 2017.png

The equivalent product screen, planned for Planful’ upcoming Winter 17 release. Items are enriched with icons, brought into one table, and organized into tabbed categories.

Note, we have no plans to install Planful buttons onto keyboards or TV remotes. Although, with the Apple Macbook Pro’s new Touch Bar feature, who knows?

apple touch bar.png

Apple’s Touch Bar virtual laptop keyboard row.

This lesson, the second of three installments on user experience design and its application to software products, presented the basic elements and challenges of user experience for EPM software. Again, if you missed the first lesson on the fundamentals of design as it applies to software product design, you can read it here. Stay tuned for lesson three: the unique UX design challenges and benefits of the Planful platform.

And if you are interested in seeing the latest and greatest features and UX improvements, register for an upcoming Planful Live Demo.

Register for a Live Demo

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