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

In the previous two parts of this series I wrote about the changing direction of how CRM solution vendors are increasingly targeting the end user with the functionality they are developing, rather than the top level managers who consume the metrics produced from CRM data. Now it's time to look at what functionality in Microsoft Dynamics CRM can make it more "viral friendly".

Today we already have the tools to build quite comprehensive applications for managing various business processes through the declarative programming model of Dynamics CRM and the ever growing portfolio of ISV add-ons and ready-made integrations to popular third party applications & services. These pieces can be combined in so many different ways that the amount of custom code needed for meeting the business requirements of CRM customers is continuously shrinking, which I consider a highly positive development.

With this ever expanding toolkit in our hands, we still need to keep in mind that building the business logic into the system gets us only half way. The ultimate goal of a CRM system implementation is to drive business process changes and realize the resulting performance improvements - not just to offer data processing functionality. In order to achieve such results it is not enough for the technology to just support the processes, it must also take part in communicating them to the users. Yes, the machine should preferably tell the man what is expected of him to get the job done.

"If only everybody worked the way we planned"

In a CRM system implementation project, after the ideal usage patterns of the new application have been mapped out in the analysis phase, it's time to plan not only the technical functionality to be developed but more importantly the behavioral change to be delivered and the available means for it. At this point the boundaries of the project team's resources can often start to feel quite constraining. As an implementation consultant, I can't worry about every little detail of the user interface components. As a system owner, I can't create an extensive user manual with screenshots & instructions for every single use case, nor get people to discover and read it at the time of need.

Let me reduce your anxiety of the overwhelming training and documentation task envisioned for any large scale CRM system deployment by letting you in on a little secret: in the real world, there are no manuals. Or, to be more specific, a manual may exist somewhere, but it might as well not. In the words of Seth Godin, "no one is going to read the whole thing, ever again".

Did you read a manual for Foursquare before you performed your first ever check-in? Did you have a printed guide to assist you in creating your Facebook profile? It's obvious that you didn't and quite frankly the whole concept of a user manual feels foreign when talking about these types of modern social applications. Remember: these are prime examples of viral apps.

What should a CRM application designed for the same kind of low or non-existing barrier of entry look like? First of all, it needs to be highly visual and intuitive enough so I can trust the users to interpret the presented information in the same way as the system designers. It needs to show the expected process flow to the user, without the need to reference a printed flowchart of what to do in which order. Machines excel at repeating tasks based on the instructed pattern, humans are better off using their brain capacity for something other than memorizing patterns.

Show, don't tell

The enhancements coming to Microsoft Dynamics CRM starting from the Fall 2012 release include a new Process Driven UI. The fundamental change that this new approach aims to deliver is displaying the previously well hidden business logic of workflow and dialog processes to the end user. We've spent nearly a decade building intricate workflow logic under the hood of Microsoft's CRM application and now it's finally time to bring them out into the open.

The extent to which the initial UI functionality will support presenting conditional branches and other complexities of everyday processes remains to be seen, but I've got a positive feeling about the direction this will take the CRM platform, regardless of the inevitable limitations in the first iterations. That is because I believe that once you reveal the processes on the front-end, there's no pushing them away into the back-end anymore.

While we're at it, let's not stop with the process visualization. Ultimately, system customizers need the ability to offer proper signage to the end users to inform them about the right things at the appropriate time. I'm not talking about completely re-skinning the application or pulling any content management/publishing type of tricks. Why not start from the basic things, such as allowing us to show meaningful tooltips for users wondering about what a particular form field is used for? Or by displaying different kinds of forms for records based on their field values, since we know all accounts are not meant to be alike (why show the customer rating for a partner organization, for example?). It's this type of attention to detail that can have a more significant impact to user adoption than adding yet another feature button for the users to ignore.

Yes, with enough Jscript you can already do wonders through supported or unsupported form modifications, but that's not a valid excuse if you're really aiming to change the user experience of the core Microsoft Dynamics CRM product into something that transparently communicates the business processes it is used for managing. There's a clear distinction between making something possible and making it obvious, with the latter often being the results or reducing options rather than increasing them. As an example, Android smartphones allow the user to tweak every possible setting, but the iPhone delivers a more enjoyable user experience with far less options or user control. That is the power of applying a well thought-out, consistent user language.

In the final part of this series I will analyze the impact of different client versions coming for Microsoft Dynamics CRM and how they are shaping the process of designing a CRM system that's ready for the age of viral user adoption.