User-friendly interfaces hide complex apps

It was a simple enough IT project for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals Group: rework a financials application to make it easier for workers to complete expense reports for reimbursements.

But instead of improving the process, the new application made expense-report filing even harder, requiring so many extra steps and multiple screens to fill out forms that few workers ever used it. And worse, said Joseph C. Schmadel Jr., senior director of business technology at New York-based Pfizer Inc., help desk calls and related expenses never dropped because users never felt comfortable using the program.

“That was an indication to us that something was wrong,” Schmadel said here in Palm Desert, Calif., Monday in a presentation at Computerworld’s fifth annual Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference. The fix, he said, involved bringing in Cambridge, Mass.-based IT consultancy netNumina Inc. to begin looking at the problem in a different way. Instead of starting from scratch with a new application, netNumina introduced a service-oriented architecture using HTML that provided an easy-to-use interface, while linking directly to the needed functions in the application.

“We took it and put a new (appearance) on it, via Web services that could reach into the core application, giving users what they needed, while the application had what it needed, too,” Schmadel said. By tweaking the approach, IT workers could expand the expense-reporting features available to them by plugging in additional options from the original application — including specialized expense reporting and customized views of monthly spending, he said. In the process, a “dashboard” interface was created that gave users a single screen from which to get the information they needed.

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