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Business apps get bad marks in usability

Business applications from major software makers are often difficult for the average office worker to use, costing companies millions of dollars, a new study says.

Business applications from major software makers are often difficult for the average office worker to use, costing companies millions of dollars and compromising many corporate software projects, according to a new study.

Forrester Research conducted the software usability study, which it published last week. The study is part of a bigger report the firm is publishing Wednesday that evaluates software companies that sell enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications.

ERP applications are a type of business management software designed to help companies automate day-to-day tasks, such as taking orders, keeping books, and managing human resources.

In their usability evaluation, Forrester analysts tried to perform a number of standard tasks with applications from 11 different ERP companies, including SAP, PeopleSoft, Oracle, J.D. Edwards, Microsoft and Lawson. The tasks included changing security profiles, which are used to control access to the applications and to sensitive data.

The analysts also attempted to modify the software to reflect changes in a company's organization, such as a plant closing, and they tried to download software patches for bugs and updates via the vendor's customer support Web site.

In its report, Forrester said several applications required "inordinate patience and expertise" to complete the tasks, and many fell short on overall usability.

"It's a frustration factor for customers," said Forrester's Laurie Orlov, one of the analysts involved in the study. "But once the software's implemented, there's not much you can do."

Forrester analysts received no user training before testing the software. Companies typically invest in extensive training for their workers, spending between 10 percent and 15 percent of their project budgets on average, according to Forrester. However, the analysts tested what they thought of as "straightforward" tasks that shouldn't require training, Orlov said.

Forrester receives many complaints from businesses about the poor design of ERP software, Orlov said. While such complaints aren't necessarily on the rise, Orlov said, in a depressed market for corporate applications, now is the time to improve the situation.

"In a buyer's market, customers should be demanding better usability," Orlov said.

The costs to businesses that use poorly designed software are huge, according to Orlov. Companies often end up investing tens of thousands of dollars in additional training they hadn't budgeted for. A ponderous interface can also disrupt worker productivity. In the worst case, it can cause workers to abandon the software all together in favor of manual processes, negating the benefits of projects in which businesses typically invest millions, Orlov said.

Most software companies have little incentive to make their applications more intuitive, because their training programs are an important source of revenue, Orlov said.

SAP, the biggest seller of ERP software, refuted the notion that it's not doing enough to improve usability.

"We're constantly in the process of talking to customers and incorporating their feedback in our products," SAP spokeswoman Bonnie Rothenstein said.

Rothenstein added that the findings of the Forrester study were "Forrester's take on things," and declined to comment further.