PLM: Functionality, Usability, Cost. Pick any two…

July 29, 2015


My SmarTeam colleague and long time blogging buddy Jos Voskuil challenged readers with an unusual PLM dilemma. You should pick between usability and business benefits. Ouch… painful choice, right? Navigate to the following post How to measure collaboration? to read more.

The challenge proposed by Jos was the outcome of our PLM vs. Excel discussion. You might be interested to look few other posts related to the topic: PLM – Need for Speed and PLM vs Excel: Bullfight and Prohibition.

Jos brings all these “SAP-like” value proposition reasons for enterprise system. Jos is actually confirming enterprise systems are guilty to build bad user experience and brining SAP as an example. He acknowledges that it worked well for financial systems, but sort of failed in engineering domain. Here is my favorite passage (a bit long one) explaining about ERP and PLM selling points and how is that related to usability:

ERP systems have never been sold to the users for their usability. It is more that the management is looking for guarantees that the execution process is under control. Minimize the potential for errors and try to automate all activities as much as possible. As the production process is directly linked to finance, it is crucial to have it under control. Goodbye usability, safety first.

Why is this approach not accepted for PLM? Why do we talk about usability? First of all, the roots for PLM come from the engineering department (PDM) and, therefore, their primary data management system was not considered an enterprise system. And when you implement a system for a department, discussions will be at the user level. So user acceptance became necessary for PDM and PLM.

But this is not the main reason. Innovation, Product Development, Sales Engineering, Engineering are all iterative activities. In contrary to ERP, there is no linear process defined how to develop the ultimate product the first time right. Although this believe existed in the nineties by an ERP country manager that I met that time. He told me: Engineers are resources that do not want to be managed, but we will get them. An absurd statement I hope you agree. However, the thoughts behind this statement are correct. How do you make sure product development is done in the most efficient manner?

I like how Jos brings the idea of efficiency. This is where it come back to reasons why people mistakenly prefer Excel over complicated and well structured enterprise systems. It gives them a very brutal feeling of efficiency and ownership. This is why I love my PLM Excel spreadsheets. But this feeling of efficiency is wrong. There are many reasons for that – it gets complex within time, it is hard to manage, etc. I outlined all of them in my six years old blog – PLM Excel Spreadsheet: from odes to woes.

The real problem is related to complexity of enterprise systems. It goes to the point you are afraid of these enterprise beasts. You are afraid to do something wrong. In some situations, you want only highly trained people to do something, because you are afraid of making a mistake that will cost time and money. On the other side, engineering and manufacturing process is very iterative by nature. So, how to bring a flexibility of spreadsheet and protection of enterprise system?

There is an old saying of product development that it can sound something like this – “Fast, Good or Cheap. Pick two”. This is a translation Project Management Triangle where you actually balancing between scope, schedule and cost. Fast is a translation of time; good is a translation of quality and cost is a translation of resources needed to make it happen. The three properties are interrelated and it is not possible to optimize all three of them.

Here is my translation of project management triangle in the context of PLM – “Functionality, Usability, Cost. Pick any two”. Obviously, the enterprise thinking is prioritizing functional requirements. One of the most typical PLM selection process is to fill in blanks of RFP for PLM implementation with a very long list of functional requirements. Guess what happens if you have missed functions… You lose the deal. Usability requires lot of work. It is very hard (almost impossible) to make it usable for the first time. You need to increase your budget to get it done or to increase a development timeline. Which was a challenge for most of PLM vendors until now.

What is my conclusion? Unfortunately, for enterprise PLM, the decision to pick any two ended up with functionality and cost. Therefore we have gigantic complex creatures called Enterprise PLM systems with a long list of supported functions and questionable usability. And for the reason not to make costly mistakes people are forced to use them. Is it going to change? I guess it will change as enterprise UX paradigm shifts. Less is more in a new world of enterprise transformation. It doesn’t mean we will accept mistakes or make it less secure. Actually, the brutal efficiency with less functions will win the future. Just my thoughts..

Best, Oleg

picture credit Wikipedia article


5 NOs to make PLM usable

November 20, 2012

User experience. You can hear this combination of words quite often these days. PLM space is not an exclusion from that. People in enterprise software, engineering and manufacturing are starting to ask more questions about usability. There are multiple reasons for that. Think about end users – engineers, project managers, etc. Consumer technologies makes a significant influence on their perception about how future software needs to look and feel. In their home life, they are exposed to so many technologies. Many of these technologies are more powerful and more usable compared to products, company IT provides them. BYOD is only one example of consumer technology impact. Speaking about companies (opposite to individuals), I can see also see a significant interest to usability and user experience. On recent PLM Innovation conference in Atlanta, many companies spoke about the importance of usability in the future of PLM products.

To deliver usability is a complex task. However, I decided to make an attempt to define "five NOs" you need think about to make PLM software usability. These NOs probably can be applied to other enterprise software too. However, I think, for PDM/PLM industry they make the most sense.

1. No memorizing things. We are overloaded with the information. In the past, our best user experience was "file explorer" or "project browser". Hierarchical view was the best UI pattern. It was everywhere, and PDM/PLM software actively mimicked that. Now, Google revolutionized this behavior. We don’t need to "browse for things", but we can "search for thing". It removes the need to memorize everything and make behavior much simpler.

2. No user interface inconsistencies. It takes long time to develop PDM/PLM products. Many companies also spent months and years to implement it and use it for production. As a result of that, we can see many inconsistencies in products and modules developed during different periods of time. By removing these inconsistencies, we can make experience much easier and pleasant.

3. No strange terminology. Enterprise software is well known for TLAs. It is everywhere. In addition to that, enterprise organizations are well know for creating lots of abbreviations and assumption about how to call different things – ECO, MBOM, EBOM, QBOM, SCM, CCB… this is a very short and incomplete list of terminology used by the software and companies. While software vendors cannot change the way a customer works, they clearly can make it easier and simple on their side. So, an attempt to eliminate abbreviation and inconsistent terminology can improve experience as well.

4. No gaps in user activity flow. User activity is important. Customer (especially when it comes to an individual worker) is very sensitive to the ability to get a job done. From that standpoint, what is needed is to make software to support process flow to go smooth. Don’t expect customer to be pleased with the need to jump over the screens, making strange manipulation with files (eg. copy, save, open) and assume end user will understand how to "make a sync" in order to transfer data between multiple systems. What the system needs to assume is that end user will forget, misunderstood and ask many questions if it will not go as he expects.

5. No duplication of office and other software and tools. PLM has love and hate relationships with office and email systems. The complimentary between these systems is obvious. PDM/PLM needs to rely on Office and email systems that have wide spread in organizations and huge mainstream adoption. So, integration with these tools is no-brainer decision for PDM/PLM functionality. At the same time, the same tools (Emails, Excel and content management systems) replaced PLM tools for collaboration and other forms of communication in the organization. I believe people are very comfortable with email and office systems. So, not to replace them can make user experience much better.

What is my conclusion? People are paying attention to user experience. Bad UI is not a joke anymore. When Boeing is paying attention on usability and SAP is investing into gamification of their software, PDM/PLM vendors need to think twice about their priorities. Just my opinion. YMMV.

Best, Oleg

image credit

PLM Innovation: Who will provide PLM to Boeing in 2015?

October 25, 2012

I’m in Atlanta these days attending PLM Innovation Americas conference. Today is the first day, and I’m still expecting many things to come. Nevertheless, here is the thing that made me to blog. I’ve been attending first keynote made by Kevin Fowler or Boeing Commercial Airplanes . The name of the presentation – The sky’s the limit? Reaching for the value of PLM at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The presentation provided a very interesting retrospective on how PLM developed at BCA (Boeing Commercial Airplanes) for the last 20 years. In my view, Boeing is one of the companies that stands at the root of PLM development back 25 years. Boeing fundamentally influenced the way PLM tools were developed by vendors like Dassault Systems and Metaphase (now Siemens PLM).

Growth of PLM system was driven by the need to support development and manufacturing processes. The ultimate request was to provide additional features to product development processes. Boeing moved from spatial integration (777) to build integration (737-next-gen) and functional integration (787). It means more and more features. The following slides show a very interesting trend related to Boeing PLM Value.

As you can see, functionality is growing. However, total cost of ownership is growing too, which is not very good sign. The most disappointing factor is related to usability of PLM systems. The usability of PLM tools is going down, which confirms the fact PLM is struggling from complexity and user experience. The level of information complexity at Boeing is impressing – 1B (Billion) parts to manage during the release of aircraft, Boeing has 12000 aircrafts in service and operation, Boeing employees are sending 63M (Million) emails during the month. Boeing engineers need to use multiple tools during their working day.

However, the most important message I captured from Boeing presentation was related the future evolution of PLM system. According to the Boeing, all PLM systems Boeing is currently running are approaching their end of life. Take a look on the following slide presenting four generations of Boeing PLM systems. Actually, it represents only three generations. Boeing put a question mark on the generation of PLM tools that need to come in 2015.

What is my conclusion? It is very interesting to see how large companies are turning towards usability of PLM tools. In the past, usability wasn’t a big deal for enterprise companies. Nowadays, end users cannot tolerate bad user experience. According to Boeing, their users are opening about 19 user interfaces to get data. Future PLM systems need to come with a different level of usability and user experience. The expectation level will be set by iPhone, Google, Facebook and other consumer tools. PLM vendors need to make a note. Important. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Why Cloud PLM will dominate in superior UI experience?

July 20, 2012

Let’s talk about User Interface today. Something that we call UX (User Experience) nowadays. The importance of user experience can be hardly undervalued. The days when a user interface wasn’t important gone, and customers are demanding from software vendors to provide a different level of product usability.

What is the path to a good UX?

Well. We agreed – user experience is a very important thing.Take a look on the picture below. I’m sure, many of you, reading now this blog post and watching this picture can go in your product development, PDM, PLM system and find some similarity with this UI.

However, how practically we can achieve these results? One of my favorite online publications, UX Magazine, published an interesting article – Overhauling a UI Without Upsetting Current Users. I recommend you to have a read. I found to the concept of “redesign by evidence” interesting and valuable. However, my favorite passage is related to “usability testing”:

Usability testing is very different from beta testing. In beta testing, users will typically only report usability problems that make it very difficult for them to accomplish a task—in other words, things that are very clearly bugs. They typically won’t report that they found something challenging or unintuitive. People don’t always like to admit that they failed at something. Also, beta testers (or at least the ones who take time to report issues) are often fans of the product, and are therefore also power users. They may have already learned to work around or ignore usability issues.

This is a key, and many PLM systems failed to accomplish that. To test systems with “mainstream users” and not only “product fans” is very important.

Cloud PLM and Usability Testing

In my view, cloud product architecture and development introduces new opportunity to develop a better user experience. Cloud is eliminating long development cycles and making software to be available on demand. It creates a possibility to experiment with individuals as well as user groups in a very granular form. It allows to achieve a next level of usability testing almost identical to the level consumer web brands have these days.

What is my conclusion? Cloud product development opens new horizons for PLM. Cloud product development and testing provide new platforms and capabilities for usability testing and variety of user experiments. As a result, PLM companies will have an opportunity to achieve an improved level of UI quality compatible with the quality of consumer and web products. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

PLM User Experience and The Evil of Folders?

May 24, 2011

Ask people about usability of PLM and other enterprise data management systems. From my experience, the answer is simple – it is way too complex. Very few PDM systems in the past were recognized as simple and easy to use. It made me think about Folders.

Folders: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

A long time ago, folders were invented to organize files in the operation system. The idea of folders and files did proliferate and became the major paradigm for information organization almost everywhere. It was so easy to place files into folders, so office people started to use this organization to store and classify the information. Wide expansion of Windows platforms just helped to spread the idea of folders even more. At the same time, the simplicity of folders has many drawbacks. One of them is the need to duplicate information between folders. The introduction of "shortcuts’ in Windows didn’t solve the problem. In many situations, people will prefer to copy files between folders and not to create a "shortcut" to another folder. Another drawback of folders is inability to find information in an easy way.

CAD / PDM – starting from simple folders

Starting from the early beginning, CAD systems relied on files and folders to save information in computer systems. CAD files spread out on workstations and, later, on PC/Windows computers. The complexity of folder structures introduced various problems related to location of files, references and version management.

Developers of data management solutions for engineers (TDM, EDM, PDM) are heavily inherited and relied on the idea of folder data organizations. It was well understood by people and easy. Many data management systems in the past implant the idea of folder organization and made their solution simple to use. At the same time, in my view, using the same folder paradigm was a problem with increased complexity of data. As a consequence of this, many systems that were initially clear, but system got very complicated with the time.

PLM – Usability Sucks

PLM concepts requires significant expansion of data management scope in the organization. The amount of data and complexity are growing. At the same time, the concept of "folders" was kept by the developers of many PLM systems for capturing and management information structures. It caused a significant complication in data organizations and the overall user experience. Navigating between folders and hierarchical structures became complex and not efficient. File folders, Projects, Requirements, Bill of Materials, Suppliers, Requirements – this is only a short list of various elements of data that need to be organized by PLM.

Possible Solutions

The obvious question asked by many PLM developers was how to improve PLM user experience. Recently, PLM vendors came with several innovations related to that. Some of them moved to enhanced visualization and immersive usage of 3D. Some of them moved to SharePoint as a solution to solve usability issues. However, "folders concept" is still there. Do you think "Folder" is ultimate evil? The discussion is under way, and I don’t see a final point. With the development of some web user interface, we started to see some new and fresh ideas are coming from that side – search, web 2.0, tags and other solutions are proliferating, and we started to see some ideas how to simplify things. At the same time, the conservatism of users pushes it back to something known and even convenient (at least from the beginning).

What is my conclusion? The usability of PLM and other systems related to the data is far away from being optimized. This is not a secret. People demands these days to get it as clean and as simple as possible. The last recognizable effort to change the status quo, was to present Microsoft SharePoint as a universal hammer to solve the usability problem in the enterprise. This is a place where innovation will continuously happen in a near future.

Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

PLM Usability and Social News Aggregators

September 11, 2010

Yesterday discussion about PLM usability made me think more about how to come with ideas to improve usability of PLM systems. I wanted to come to something different than just claiming "yet another system that provides a different level of usability". Such a type of messages is often failing when a customer actually started to work with a system. Polished user interface looks great. However, when a user drill down to nuts and bolts, appears as another lipstick on a pig.

Thinking about usability I found a very interesting trend in news reading applications. Do you remember old teletext systems? Ha… their time is over. News is a special space. We are all reading news. They are coming from multiple places. Few years ago, we had a single source of news – emails. Subscription on emails was a simple space to be informed. Google alert service didn’t change much in this mechanism, since alerts still can be delivered as emails. However, social media revolution changed a lot in the news industry. These days, a significant portion of news is coming from alternative sources – social networks, microblogging, video, etc. I found few interesting applications that representing a new class of news aggregators.


This iPad application aggregate news coming from multiple channels as well as you twitter and Facebook accounts. What I specially like in this application is the ability to visualize hidden resources such as video and pictures links. Normally, social net stream on twitter and other social networks is very boring. You need to follow links to get to a picture or video. Flipboard changed this behavior. Now you can see it. Now, imagine you Bill of Material discover becomes as simple and natural as reading social news streams in Flipboard.


Pulse News

Another news aggregator – Pulse provide multi-dimensional stream scrolling. What I like in this app is the ability to visualzie structured streams of information. This can be an interesting experience for reviewing of information normally presented in PDM and PLM systems as boring streams.


What is my conclusion? The bad old days of enterprise software are over. Consumer apps are bringing a new and different way to consume information. Gen-Y is coming to enterprise organization and have these new behaviors in their mind. Do we still want to see boring Bill of Materials’ sheets and endless structured trees? Nope. It seems to me time for change is coming. Bill of Material in PLM systems looks like old teletext. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

PLM: Lipstick on a Pig or Missed Opportunity?

September 10, 2010

I had a chance to read AESSIS blog post – Why Some People Don’t Like PLM?Graham started absolutely important discussion about mainstream adoption of PLM in the organizations. I had a chance to write about this in the past. Navigate your browser on the following link – Complexity Kills or 3 ways to improve PLM adoptions. I specially liked this passage from Graham’s post:

…I think the bottom line is that PLM requires people to change their behaviours. This is hard to do. Just look around you. People continue to do all kinds of things that are bad for themselves and others. And managing information poorly, not sharing it, not organising it etc…seems pretty benign compared with some things I could mention… and yet it costs organisations billions. People don’t want to change despite obvious benefits to the wider organisation.

The last statement is just brilliant – "people don’t want to change". However, the next conclusion got my blood boiling somewhat. Graham is proposing to think about "incentive" for people to start using PLM. This is a place where I think we have a kind of disagreement with Graham. So, I decide to put some thoughts about that below.

Enterprise Software: Love and Hate?

Have you had a chance to hear the following statement? – "Enterprise software is not fun. We came here to work and not to have fun". Let me guess what is that about? It is probably coming from some kind of enterprise software implementations. Enterprise software consistently sold to executives and IT and not to end users. Then, obvious statement came – you should not love this software, just do your job! However, I see this paradigm slowly changing over the last decade. Usability started to play a more and more important role. Users started to dump consistently buggy and not useful software, and vendors started to think about how to make their enterprise portfolios nicer.

PLM Idea vs. PLM Reality

I can see PLM as a step child of enterprise software. PLM wasn’t born as a pure "enterprise package". Predecessors of PLM – CAD and PDM, had deep roots in engineering and R&D departments. Competition brought the usability revolution to CAD software first. PLM didn’t get there… yet? The original PLM idea was good. To provide a way to manage information about products on all stages of product development. The implementation reality was different. Engineering and product development is a complex field. One size doesn’t fit all. Vendors failed to create simple and easy to implement software. Complexity of PLM environments and implementations made people dislike the changes that always coming with PLM.

Quality, Incentives and Opportunity

I’m thinking about a quality. Something wrong happens with a quality of enterprise software. PLM is just a very good example. Time ago, the quality of cars was awful. It created an opportunity and we got much better cars during the last 10-15 years. Similar things happened with consumer software and the internet. You run away from a low quality website, stop using low quality phones and other consumer software. Nobody is thinking about how to create an incentive to use a bad consumer software. Why we think it should be acceptable for PLM or enterprise software? I think, real incentive is an opportunity to create a better software.

What is my conclusion? Last then years were prime time for "consumer IT". Think about how much was done during these years in the internet, office applications, telecommunication, etc.? In my view, we are coming to the point when we need to start counting next ten years of "enterprise IT". Next ten years will put enterprise IT "on fire", so in 2020 we’ll not need to find incentives to use buggy PLM enterprise software. Will we call it PLM? I don’t know…

Best, Oleg


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