SAP in 2022 increased expertise and resources attuned to product and service design, functionality, and usability. The moves included the appointment of Arin Bhowmick as Chief Design Officer.
After just a few months into the new role, Bhowmick described his comprehensive design definition and reach as "a cross-section of system, processes, frameworks, and user interfaces coming together to help solve business outcomes,” addressing improvements in SAP solutions that are already underway and others still to come. He also emphasized the increased importance of channels for customer feedback, with direct calls to action for the ASUG community.
This is an edited version of the complete conversation conducted late last year.
Question: Could you provide some of the background and credentials you bring to this role?
Answer: I've been a design practitioner and leader all my life, so I bring proficiency, academic training in design, and a Master’s in human-computer interaction. I've spent pretty much my entire career on enterprise applications. I spent my first 13 years at Oracle on the ERP side but also got to work on database systems, data warehouses, system administration experiences, and cloud applications.
Beyond that, I worked in a smaller company called Progress Software and built a UX practice from the ground up and a center of excellence. Later, I was the chief design officer at IBM for products in the software portfolio, from AI to data to apps, automation, security, and blockchain.
Now at SAP, I am the chief design officer. My goal is to make SAP known not just for great technology functionality but also great experiences. To me, experiences are more than just the UI or the UI in the product. I plan on leveraging the definition of design: a cross-section of systems, processes, frameworks, and user interfaces coming together to help solve business outcomes. That's what I'm after.
Q: Is this a new role at SAP?
A: No, the role is not new. But my focus is more expansive than that of my predecessors.
Q: Do the design elements in your philosophy intersect with the new SAP branding elements, and if so, can you explain that?
A: One hundred percent. When customers or prospects engage with our products and services, they are looking at one SAP. So the brand language needs to be pervasive across all the touch points. In this context, we have a design system that also focuses on design language. The design language should be used across the board—in digital channels and products in print and media—so that there is immediate recognition of SAP as a brand. Brand expression is another part of how we show up for users, customers, and partners.
One of the key intersection points is between the design profession and branding and marketing. We're closely aligned and working together towards the same mission.
Q: Along the same lines, has design taken on more importance and prominence at SAP, and, if so, how and why?
A: I would argue it has. I think that design has been in the company’s DNA for quite some time. But I want to ensure that we expand the definition, from just our products to all customer touchpoints. One of the key priorities for SAP at a corporate level is user experience; within that, we have specific goals and missions.
My simplified mission is to build inclusive experiences and products that users love—not tolerate, but truly love. There's a huge gulf here that we need to climb through. With the renewed focus on design, we have introduced new centers of excellence within the design community, internal to SAP, so that we build our products right and manifest those innovations for the world to use. Things like designing for AI: how do we embed meaningful artificial intelligence into our products? Platform experiences: connecting the dots in our portfolio, where the sum of the different parts brought together yields even greater results. Integration becomes a key area. We gain user insights and research to push user-centered and human-centered design, not just through data collection but by generating insights through deep research that will affect the product roadmap.
We focus on accessible and inclusive experiences, not just about accessibility as a component of what we deliver, but by creating inclusive experiences that can be used worldwide by people with any background and constraints.
Q: And is the design community larger, in terms of resources and scope, within the entire organization?
A: Yes. I don't have the exact numbers, but if you make a head-to-head comparison, I think design has grown at least 20%, if not more. We have new designers coming in and hiring people with the right skills. We hired great practitioners from other cloud and AI companies that have done this in the past, so we have a different level of talent in our business at this point of time.
Q: In the commentary that you wrote [for sap.com], you discussed the importance of customer voice and involvement. Can you speak to that a little bit and if it's possible for ASUG members to get involved, or could they already be involved?
A: They probably already are, so let me talk about the concept of voice of a customer, and in this context, voice of customer and voice of user. While I use them interchangeably, there are different levels of granularity. We want to build products and services meant for users to get their jobs done. They're using enterprise applications and tools to make a living; it's part of their existence. So, our belief is that when we involve users in making the product, in the alignment of the problem we're trying to solve, we generate better outcomes. Users and customers become the North Star.
I've been here seven months or so. I've already seen a lot of forums where we interact with customers and users in different capacities—even ASUG members, whether in the initial brainstorming phases, conception, ideation, or all the way to validation.
We have some concrete structured venues as well. For example, we have an Executive Advisory Board for SAP, and UX is a particular track there. We also have a Customer Office that I set up in the design community. This is the team that explicitly works with customers to make sure that customers are aware of the UX strategy, the innovations that are being planned, and have a voice in how we move forward.
And the third part about the voice is about running structured user evaluations and user usability tests, and generative studies with end users. This is where many ASUG members are involved because they are the target users in some cases.
Q: What do you think customers think about in terms of SAP design strengths? And how do customers want SAP to improve?
A: It's an interesting question. I'm fortunate to have had many interactions with customers already starting with Sapphire and with SAP mentors who give tangible, credible feedback on our products and services. I see two common threads.
One is that customers trust us if we do the right thing. They've been with us along the journey for the last 50 years. They want to stay with us, so they believe we are trying to do the right things. That said, specifically in design, one of our advantages is that we are enterprise-grade. We care about how the software will be used in the context of work and the future of work. Our customers appreciate that we create global, universal experiences, that we build accessibility right into the products, and that we build for productivity and efficiency so people can get their jobs done faster and smarter. That's the goodness I see customers really rallying around.
In terms of what we can do better as a design community, the feedback I get from customers is to continuously improve the usability of our products. You know, we have obviously built products for a while. We also had acquisitions that we’ve integrated. There are inherent challenges. The push from the customer side is how we build it together so it acts as a singular ecosystem of products. That's an area of work we need to get better at.
Q: You said that among your goals is to build products that are loved. What does that look like?
A: I think that in this market, whether we like it or not, with the advent of cloud, we expect our users to digitally discover us, learn about us, try our products, get the benefits early on, and start using it. So, we want to push toward digital experiences. This is what our future holds.
Enterprise software is about productivity. What can design and experience do to help users get their job done faster, more efficiently, and more effectively? This is where embedding intelligence, artificial intelligence, or leveraging automation will help users get their jobs done is one area of focus.
Expectations for the incoming generation of users are slightly different because these future workers are used to mobile devices. They're used to not necessarily needing documentation and training and such. Therefore, our focus for SAP design is on how to build experiences for the next generation. How do we ensure that we include consumer experiences into our enterprise software?
Just for the record, I don't believe in a difference between ‘enterprise’ and ‘consumer’ from a software perspective. The usage is different. The intent of use is different. But good design is good design. I want to bring great experience to enterprise software. That's our broad push, our design recipe for the future.
Q: When your teams are selling enterprise software, where, when, and how does design enter that conversation?
A: For us, at the end of the day, what matters is the end user, who they are, and if they are successful in using our products. We realize that buyers make decisions, and that the business users are influencers. We interact at three levels. The first is engagement at three levels: with end users, with buyers such as the CIOs and CTOS, and with the administrators who hold the key to the first-mile experience, around configuring and provisioning our software for appropriate use by end users. When you hit those three different levels, you get the highest level of abstraction on the business problem and why a particular customer wants the software. Next, how can our software be adapted to the user's needs? And the third is about users using the software to get their job done.
Q: Who is most important?
A: Most important would be the end users because they are the ones who transact. I also see that in the cloud world, they have a lot of say in the choice of the software tool. I’m going to guess that if the end users are happy, everyone else will be.
Q: And if they're not?
A: They are definitely going to speak up, yes.
Q: In August, there were announcements related to the user experience in SAP S4/HANA Cloud and there were design-related improvements. What along those lines will an ASUG community member see?
A: One of the things you would have heard or read about in that announcement is we are pushing this design language called “Horizon.” It's part of the design system, so you can expect to see that across all our products, whether it’s SAP SuccessFactors, Ariba, Concur, or Fieldglass. It’s a common thread across the board. You can also expect a better set of entry experiences for our customers through SAP Start, which is the single entry point. We are trying to bring in the best and most credible insights from each of our applications served upright when you log in so users can be more productive. You can expect to see more mobile experiences that take advantage of the native capabilities of your devices to get the job done. Usability innovations and improvements in each product line are key themes. It's not just about how it looks; it's a lot about how it works. We will focus on the 'how it works part' a lot more.
And in terms of technology, we have SAP UI5, which is our underpinning of the tech stack, the foundation of the SAP design system. We want to make sure that we are playing ball, so to speak, with the other relevant text stacks around us so that every product can use the same design patterns regardless of the text stack. We want to move forward with cohesion, with cross-capabilities, so we can design once and deploy it across the board. You've heard a little bit about Microsoft Teams integration with Ford. You can expect to see that in other products. We want to apply the same design pattern across the board, so once you learn and use one, you can use it across the board.
Q: There's also the strategic relationship with Apple. Can you speak to that a little bit?
A: What I like about Apple is their attention to detail. That's something we are getting as we partner with them. The partnership is two-way. We are the de facto ERP lead. We know the domain. We know the business problem. If you can leverage the Apple ecosystem around ways of working, and how they build software into what we do, it's a win-win. We are learning a lot from Apple, and I'm hopeful that Apple gets a lot from us as the leading ERP software in the Apple ecosystem.
Q: You emphasized design and a sense of inclusivity. Can you speak to that a little bit more?
A: If you look at the tagline for SAP—Help businesses run better and improve people's lives—people are core to everything we do. We need to design for the differences in expectations, capabilities, and cultural differences that might exist across the world. So inclusive experiences are really about building experiences, knowing the differences, and the intersection of these differences. That's where we'll come up with breakthrough innovations for everyone to use. It's not for a specific geography. It's not for a specific segment. We try to democratize the world of innovation. Inclusive experience is also in terms of inclusive research. So instead of getting feedback from just one segment or industry, we are expanding feedback worldwide with different cultural norms, different levels of experience and expertise, and different levels of education. If you can design for these inclusive characteristics, we can guarantee that it is truly going to be a global product.
Internally, building our products with an inclusive mindset plays a role. When we create project teams, for example, ideally, we are bringing cross-functional expertise from different perspectives into the making of the product.
Q: Are there any aspects between your work and the SAP sustainability strategy?
A: Yes. This is a thing that's evolving. In my opinion, we care about sustainability more than what I've seen from other vendors. For example, we have a Chief Sustainability Office with specific ways of engaging. They have a framework in place. They're leading the conversation in Davos and in other venues, too. Then, we have products and software helping our customers achieve, monitor, and track sustainability goals.
I think the challenge for us as a design team is to figure out how we, as designers, can affect sustainability. What are the design principles for a circular economy, regenerative experience, experiential frameworks, and such? I think it’s a muscle we’ll need to build.
In talking to customers and other companies looking into sustainability, sustainable design principles still need to be worked out. This is an area that is evolving and very important for us. I need to capitalize on it from the design side.
Q: Anything else that you want to say directly to the ASUG community?
A: The products are as good as the usage and how much users know, use, and love it. The community is central to how we build our products. I welcome the community to share feedback with the design community. We serve the users. The user community is a huge part of what we do. We will have different touchpoints going forward with ASUG as well in usability centers, in test centers.
If there are other ways we can get some more feedback and some more engagement in helping improve our products to serve users, I'm all in.
I thank the community for trusting in us. I think they can expect design to engage more, to ask them for more and more feedback and, hopefully, they're open to that. And together, we can make a difference.