By Jukka Niiranen, Senior Consultant (CRM Solutions) at Anvia

In part one of this article we looked at the original design intent of many CRM systems, including Microsoft Dynamics CRM, whereby the process came first, then the user. That remains the underlying principle built into the DNA of typical enterprise software. Note that it doesn't mean anyone was specifically or intentionally de-prioritizing the user productivity improvements to be gained from these information management tools. I believe most people involved in designing, developing, customizing, deploying and supporting such systems do care about the user experience, because they also are the users of such systems, even if not within the very same context.

Viral applications aren't sold to management, instead they are adopted by the end user. This flips the whole scenario from top-down to bottom-up. Management does not enforce a choice of tools, instead they approve the choice that their subordinates have made through their own selection process, which in itself has likely included unstructured, non-hierarchical collaboration amongst peers. Due to this major shift in thinking, building a viral CRM system doesn't mean you simply change the focus of your product brochures and marketing pitches to emphasize the user perspective rather than the management benefits. No, I'm afraid you will need to design a different kind of a system altogether.

The fundamental components of the system may not be all that different, no matter which approach is being used (process vs. user). The objects and actions forming the typical day of marketing, sales or service personnel aren't dictated by the choice of CRM system, rather they are defined by the operational processes that the business runs on. Reflecting back to a Dynamics CRM system, what this means is that the entities, activities and relationships between these shouldn't be affected by changes in the design language of the system. Instead the methods available to the user for interacting with this data may require a complete overhaul to transform the experience into something with true viral traction.

Where should CRM application design go?

Many modern web and mobile applications deliver a user experience in which it feels almost effortless to accomplish the tasks at hand, literally with just a few swipes of the finger. Of course typically the scope of tasks is considerably more limited than that of a configurable, customizable and extendable CRM system. But perhaps this strength of systems like Dynamics CRM is exactly their weakness as well: the users don't actually care about any of that functionality. Yes, they'd probably prefer to have a system with as few features as possible, just as long as they can accomplish the task that stands between them and their current goal. In a system with 100 options, 99 of them will be irrelevant to the end user while he's focused on a single task, and probably around 80 will forever remain unused.

Just because the underlying product delivers a comprehensive platform doesn't mean that an application with a polished user experience couldn't be delivered on top of it. Dynamics CRM is perfectly capable of acting as the foundation of a viral business application with a streamlined user experience, but it will take some effort in reaching that goal. Some of it will require technical enhancements and changes to the core platform from Microsoft in the coming releases to make it more accessible and context aware in today's mobile working environment. Others are simply design principles that the parties implementing the customer solution on top of the platform will need to adhere to.

Here's my proposal of items to include in your project's do's & don'ts list for the design phase:

  • Reduce irrelevant options shown to the user
  • Guide the user through each step in the expected process
  • Consolidate data from different sources to reduce the user's need to multitask
  • Don't ask "can the user do it" but "WILL the user do it" when designing new functionalities
  • Be ruthless in prioritizing requirements, don't attempt to solve every problem identified

No matter how elegant the application front end might appear, avoiding the featuritis contagion that could add unnecessary process complexity and friction into the user experience will always remain the responsibility of the implementation project team. Virality is not a feature, it's the result of consistently using a design language throughout every part of the system, conveying the desired message to the end user: this is a CRM built for You.

In part 3 I will take a deeper look into how Microsoft Dynamics CRM as a product is moving towards a more "viral ready" direction in its upcoming releases.