Simplicity Is Golden

Heeding customer demands, sellers of planning software aim to make their products easier to use.
John EdwardsJanuary 3, 2006

It’s not all fun and games in the amusement-park business.

Just ask Gary Neveras. As senior director of financial planning analysis at Universal Orlando, Neveras is responsible for tracking and forecasting the numbers on more than 1,000 different ventures and projects at the theme park. “We have tons of information,” he says. “But being able to mine that information and make business decisions — that’s a challenge.”

Like financial managers at a lot of other businesses, Neveras uses software to foretell an array of financial trends. And like financial managers at a lot of other businesses, he cringes at the effort needed to use the software. “Many modeling products just don’t offer a good mix of usability and flexibility,” he says.

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You get that a lot. While makers of planning applications have come a long way with their products, they’ve tended to overlook one small item: most users of computer programming aren’t, in fact, computer programmers. Says John Hagerty, a financial software analyst at AMR Research, a technology market research firm in Boston: “The focus so far has primarily been on providing products that deliver the most analytical power.”

That’s understandable. Given the competition in the budgeting-and-planning software sector, B&P vendors have had little choice but to trick out their programs with all sorts of bells and whistles. But after prodding from customers — many of which rely on entry-level workers to input data into modeling programs — most vendors are at least beginning to address the issue of usability. In fact, upstarts like Quantrix and KCI Computing Inc. are flogging ease of use as a major selling point for their products. And such established vendors as Business Objects, Cognos, Hyperion, and Geac Computer are attempting to design modeling apps that are simpler and more straightforward. Says Lee Geishecker, a corporate performance management analyst at Gartner Inc., a technology research firm in Stamford, Connecticut: “They’ve all become quite sensitive about usability.”

Cell Hell

Of course, the most popular modeling software in the business galaxy hardly qualifies as user-friendly. While Microsoft Excel does provide a formidable amount of analytical muscle, the advantage tends to fade as models grow more complex. That’s particularly frustrating for power users.

In fact, the well-documented limitations of Excel have opened a selling opportunity for rival vendors, eager to nick their share of what’s estimated to be a $4 billion industry. “Excel is a technology that’s designed to meet the needs of the lowest common denominator,” argues Chris Houle, chief operating officer and co-founder of Quantrix, the Portland, Maine-based financial modeling software developer.

Quantrix’s flagship product is Quantrix Modeler, an application that aims to be simple to use and easy for others to understand. “With Excel, you find spreadsheet models become so complex and convoluted that it is difficult to zero in on the specific or relevant elements of a model,” says Houle. Quantrix Modeler attempts to address this problem by providing a variety of user-geared features, including plain-English formulas that make models easier to comprehend, trace, and audit. The result, insists Houle, is a structured, multidimensional modeling application offering advanced data-integration capabilities.

Bryan Babineau of software developer Citrix Systems Inc. uses the Quantrix application to build revenue models. Babineau, financial-planning manager for the online division of the Fort Lauderdale-based company, says he likes how the program separates the presentation of a model from its logic and structure. “In Excel, we had to painstakingly lock certain cells to make sure that people didn’t accidentally change the formulas or type over them,” he says. With Quantrix, Babineau says, formulas are stored in a separate sheet that’s kept away from a user.

Isolating formulas from a spreadsheet’s data and presentation elements (and having the formulas represented in plain English) is a big advance. It’s one that’s certain to be appreciated by employees who don’t spend all day revising pivot tables for a possible .2 percent projected decrease in gross sales in Orange County (northwest sector). Some vendors, on the other hand, are hawking planning products that actually mimic the oft-cursed Excel.

KCI Control, for one, provides an Excel-like syntax that allows users to leverage their prior experience with the Microsoft product to create models. “We have worked extremely hard to put Control in a familiar and understandable form that financial analysts, planners, and end users know and love, which is the Excel environment,” says Max Kay, CEO at Torrance, California-based KCI. Formulas in the program are defined using a point-and-click wizard.

While KCI Control is designed to satisfy sophisticated users, it also considers the novice. The program has one common database to ensure the integrity of the plan and the conclusions derived from it, together with a security layer, which shields less-experienced or careless users from accidentally corrupting existing models. By layering the functionality of the software, workers see only as much of the product as they need to.

Richard Boutz is convinced of the merits of the approach. Boutz, CFO of Washington Trust Bank in Spokane, Washington, says the financial-services company substituted KCI Control for a company-built budgeting application two years ago. “KCI’s Excel interface puts the user in a familiar environment,” he says. “The advanced capabilities of Excel are, therefore, available to the Control user at all times.”

The results have been startling. In the first year of using the software, the bank was able to complete its annual budgeting process 90 days earlier than in previous years. What’s more, the software has dramatically cut the time required to perform budgeting analyses — from two weeks to a matter of minutes.

The Templates of Doom

Customer interest in less-daunting planning programs has not escaped the notice of more-established B&P vendors. John O’Rourke, senior director of product marketing for Santa Clara, California-based Hyperion Solutions Corp., believes that added functionality shouldn’t complicate a program’s structure or adversely affect its overall look and feel. He notes that despite numerous additions over the years, his company’s Hyperion Strategic Finance has retained its familiar spreadsheet-style interface and hasn’t forced users to adapt to any radical changes.

Still, it appears Hyperion is heeding customer calls for simpler software. The vendor is planning to improve Strategic Finance’s ease of use by providing more wizards and improving integration with Microsoft Office. Hyperion developers are also working on a feature that will enable users to attach notes to models. Says O’Rourke: “The annotations will allow team members to see the assumptions behind each model.”

Likewise, market leader Business Objects SA, based in San Jose, California, and in Paris, is tweaking its array of modeling applications. Peri Pierone, vice president of vertical markets, notes that the company’s goal, with all of its software, is to help customers create plans they can trust. Says Pierone: “It’s remarkable how much time companies spend on planning, but the plan that results really isn’t very believable.”

Universal Orlando’s Neveras has some familiarity with the problem. The planning analyst, along with dozens of other company employees, uses Business Objects’s software to track financial trends and goals at scores of functional units, including attractions, stores, restaurants, and souvenir carts. To improve usability — yet maintain reliability — Neveras says the company has pared the number of basic templates in the modeling program to 13. That’s enough to handle the variability in the different business segments while minimizing the maintenance and training that result from additional templates. “If we tried to make a template specific to each individual business and vision,” he says, “it would be a maintenance nightmare.”

With the basic templates, Universal Orlando manages the interactions between the theme park’s attractions, restaurants, and shops. The opening of a new ride, for instance, not only affects overall park attendance, but also the number of people drawn to food and merchandising sites. A fresh attraction typically adds visitors to nearby venues, yet may lure guests away from sites located close to older, less popular rides. “If we’re still staffing based on the old history,” says Neveras, “we’re not going to capitalize on our penetration and maximize our profitability.”

Easy For You

As they attempt to advance both capabilities and usability, modeling developers find themselves walking a thin and perilous line. Customers may be demanding easier-to-use products, but they’re reluctant to trade away any modeling functionality. “They don’t want the applications dumbed down,” says Business Objects’s Pierone.

Many modeling vendors have attempted to skirt the problem by giving customers the ability to integrate financial- and business-planning models. That sort of linking of systems appears to dovetail with the desires of customers. In a survey of users conducted by AMR Research, 70 percent of the respondents said their top B&P priority is connecting planning apps to underlying business programs and data.

The appeal of this melding of financial and business modeling, notes John Fontanella, a senior researcher with Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based technology research firm, is that it allows users to keep business goals in sync with financial projections. Forecasts of customer demand for a certain product or service, for example, can now be calculated alongside commodity pricing forecasts. “Virtually all of the major vendors have backwardly integrated their financial planning into business planning,” says Fontanella.

Planned or not, this integration is a big step up in functionality. Not all customers, however, require such sophistication. Indeed, consultants say finance managers who yearn for usability need to be wary of purchasing modeling software that is light years beyond their needs or abilities. “You don’t buy a cannon to shoot a rabbit,” says Guillermo Kopp, vice president of the cross-industry practice at Tower Group Inc., a financial-services research and consulting firm in Needham, Massachusetts.

The goal, then, is obvious: to maximize performance while minimizing confusion. But as vendors and users of planning software are discovering, that’s no small trick. “Simplicity,” says Neveras, “is sometimes the least simple thing to achieve.”

John Edwards is author of The Geeks of War.

Training Day

Given the intrinsically complex nature of modeling software, it’s unlikely that budgeting-and-planning software vendors will ever be able to design a product that can be used to full effect straight out of the box. Of course, the same can be said of many business programs. As Brian Hartlen, vice president of global marketing for Geac Computer, points out, “Most training is making people aware of all the possibilities a software [program] has.”

Still, keeping the training process simple has its advantages. Experts point out that limiting training to the features an employee is likely to use can reduce training costs. It can also make a user feel less overwhelmed, particularly if a program offers an array of advanced features. “Training people for things they’ll probably never do wastes time and money,” insists Lee Geishecker, a corporate performance management analyst at technology research firm Gartner Inc.

Some consultants also recommend formally training only select employees rather than everybody who might conceivably use a piece of software. “Bring in the power user, or someone who’s a liaison with IT and finance, to understand the product inside and out and become the product champion,” says Geishecker. “That person, who understands the company and its users, will drive the training internally.”

Such an approach also frees colleagues to keep working on revised forecasts. There seems to be a lot of that these days. According to a recent survey of B&P software users conducted by Boston-based research firm AMR Research, half of the respondents said they now update their business plans on a monthly or even continuous basis. — J.E.

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