Enterprise RIA Series – part 2: The role of an RIA in the enterprise

This is part 2 in a series of posts publishing extracts from a forthcoming Adobe whitepaper – see the first entry in the series for background information and links to the other posts in the series.

Something that I have found to be true in most, if not all, of the companies I have worked at, is that many of the internal systems that I had access to as an employee were not developed with the user experience at the forefront of the requirements – even at Adobe, there are a list of systems that I have to use, such as expenses, contract management and performance reviews, that fall short of providing an engaging, usable experience.

As consumers, we are now used to consuming rich media and interactive content, as well as using online applications for shopping, editing documents and photos, sending email, etc – yet when we need to interact with ‘enterprise’ systems at work the user experience often fails to equal those which we are used to using at home or on personal devices.

Thankfully, we are now seeing adoption of RIA technologies both by software companies, such as SAP, Salesforce.com and Oracle for their enterprise solutions and within organisations to create bespoke line of business applications.

One of the themes for the next release of Flex Builder is to make building these behind-the-firewall data centric applications even easier – data dashboards and form processing certainly come to mind as applications that would see a huge benefit from a Flex-based user interface (with the appropriate investment in design and user experience), but there are undoubtedly many systems within enterprise organisations that could be improved.

The excerpt from the whitepaper below outlines the type of applications where RIAs can add value and hence where enterprises should start investing so as to improve the quality and efficiency of their IT systems. In the next post we’ll take a look at the other technologies that organisations might compare with RIAs and discuss the advantages of selecting an RIA platform for building enterprise applications.

Enterprise RIAs

“For some time, enterprises have had to choose between using Web applications, which are often low on rich features, and deploying desktop applications, which are complex and difficult to install. By combining the strengths of both web and desktop applications, RIAs add value rather than complication.

There are a number of ways that RIAs can be used effectively within the enterprise. RIAs work well where line-of-business applications need to be deployed quickly and maintained constantly. They have a small footprint and can be delivered via a web server or an application server on the company network. This multiple delivery approach is important because it allows RIAs to be delivered over a wide variety of connections from the LAN to the Web and even via CD or DVD.

There are two areas where initial development has been concentrated in the enterprise: task-oriented applications and providing decision support. In some cases it can be difficult to differentiate between an enterprise task-oriented application and one that can be extended to your customers. See, for example, the insurance claim forms outlined in “The role of RIAs in the enterprise” later in this white paper. Often these task-oriented RIAs provide an opportunity to incorporate real-time collaboration between customers and employees.”

The role of RIAs in the enterprise

Decision support

“RIAs in the enterprise enable interactive and easily accessible dashboards, which promote better decision making across the organisation. A primary advantage of RIAs is that they are agnostic when it comes to back-end data sources. They employ a data service layer that enables them to be linked to back office and management systems. Two of the case studies that follow provide good examples of RIAs being used to help employees make decisions that can have a major impact on the organization’s ability to perform effectively.

Business intelligence (BI) and customer relationship management (CRM) application suppliers are using RIAs to improve access to complex environments. They are developing RIAs as a replacement for some web-based applications, and using them to extend their portals where they want to offer more interactive applications to their customers.

SAP, Salesforce.com, Oracle, Business Objects, and Intuit are examples of those suppliers who see RIAs as a valuable user interface to their products. As a result they provide compelling examples of the potential of RIAs in business-to-business applications.

For many of these companies, RIAs represent an opportunity to produce interactive applications that take advantage of the rich media inherent in the RIA model. Consider, for example, the form-based systems that abound in the enterprise. When written as web applications they become page driven, they must download information every time the user goes forward or backwards, and they have limited functionality. Their desktop equivalents have a tendency to grow surprisingly large and require increasing amounts of support to install and manage.

Existing RIA implementations by CRM and packaged application vendors demonstrate the kind of opportunities available for businesses to build custom RIAs that integrate with multiple back-end office systems.”

Task-oriented workflows

“Making task-oriented workflows more productive is another core function for RIAs within the enterprise. RIAs can accelerate data input through caching, just as in a desktop application. The input screens can be easily tuned to streamline them for the data entry user, just as in a web and portal applications. When the user wants to interpret the data they can use media-rich components to present the data simply and effectively.

Facing budget and time constraints, many companies have begun to make more use of online training. This media rich environment has suffered badly from the limitations of existing web-based and desktop approaches. Vendors such as Parleys.com are moving beyond those limitations by using RIAs to introduce more interactive training solutions. Users no longer learn just by rote; instead the materials and the tests are more interactive, enabling better comprehension and enhanced learning.

Using RIAs for data entry systems can also dramatically reduce workloads. Consider the example of insurance claim forms. While there have been web-based options for some time, they are often inflexible and all the forms have to be validated and reviewed with the customer. This is not much faster than the old method of sending out paper forms and then entering the information manually. The problem lies with making the forms easy to use and to complete. RIAs allow these forms to be more interactive, prompting the user for information, dynamically determining the workflow of data inputs based on the information given, and suggesting examples. This speeds up the process, improves accuracy, and saves time for the customer and insurance company alike.

Substantial effort has gone into developing self-help customer service solutions that help users resolve problems without accessing a call center. While make these applications easy to use has been a challenge, the rich media capabilities of RIAs can be a significant help.

Examples include:

  • Interactive videos and tutorials
  • 3D images that can be rotated by the user to match what they are looking at in the real world
  • Hot spots that allow the user to zoom in and access more detailed information
  • One-click buttons to talk to a live person
  • Real-time sharing and data collaboration

Many of these features can be applied to existing applications that you may be using today to reduce costs and improve customer loyalty. Without an RIA focused development and delivery platform, however, implementation can be difficult, costly, and require specialized skills and an experienced knowledge base.”

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