Infor and 'No Fugly Software': Design as a competitive weapon

Infor and 'No Fugly Software': Design as a competitive weapon

Summary: Infor is a $3 billion software company using design as a core element of strategy and differentiation. Here's their plan.

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Located in a prominent position on the wall of Infor's New York headquarters, is a large graphic that says, "No Fugly Software." It is a summary statement of the company's ongoing effort to define a unique cultural identity that links design to improved outcomes and experiences for customers.

Also read: Infor CEO Phillips talks cloud, UI, and industry focus

No Fugly Software graphic in the Infor office. Photo by Michael Krigsman.

Infor is a sleeping giant among enterprise vendors; with nearly $3 billion in revenue, the company calls itself the largest private technology company. However, despite this size, Infor does not have the name recognition of competitors such as Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and SAP.

In public presentations and private conversations with executives such as CEO, Charles Phillips; President, Duncan Angove; and Chief Creative Officer, Marc Scibelli, the clear picture emerges of a company rethinking design as the center of basic activities such as product planning and development.

In this case, however, the term "design" is somewhat misleading because it implies simplistic focus on the layout of graphical elements such as font, color, and other visual components of a page.

For Infor, design has a much broader meaning that includes engaging intensively with customers to understand their business goals, at a strategic level, but also diving down to specific tasks that employees, workers, and other stakeholders perform.

Accordingly, Infor's team conducts detailed analyses with customers, packages key features based on discovered needs, and creates screens that reflect customers' jobs and priorities. In some cases, this process results in re-imagining how to present information, even in well-established business environments. For example, the following screen shows the prototype for a modern nursing station in a hospital:

Nursing station software concept. Image supplied by Infor.

For Infor, design is therefore a euphemism for the broad collaboration associated with distilling processes and information down to what the user really needs, presenting that information in the most compelling and useful manner, and making it all look and feel good. Empathy for the user is central to this process.

Although other large software vendors, like SAP, have embraced this kind of design thinking, the extent to which Infor is retooling both products and corporate culture around design appears unrivaled among companies of its size. As I noted on Twitter, Infor is actively trying to incorporate design as a core strategic theme into its cultural DNA.

Infor's design-related investments include:

Creating one of the largest design agencies in New York City called Hook and Loop, led by Chief Creative Officer, Marc Scibelli.

During a presentation to analysts, CEO Phillips described the company's top two market differentiators as deep vertical expertise and "beautifully designed user interfaces creating experiences people love." Likewise, Infor's website uses the prominent tagline "Beautiful business software for your business processes." The company is presenting a message of design to both customers and its own employees.

Infor established Hook and Loop with five people in December, 2012 with five people. Today, it employs 80 with current plans to hire another 36.

Driving design as a key dimension of corporate culture. As the photos below show, Infor's offices reflect a deep interest in design sensibilities. Although one may dismiss any fancy corporate headquarters as being just a facade, this HQ structure serves a very specific cultural purpose.

The office layout brings Hook and Loop into closer physical proximity to Infor's senior executives than any other corporate function; closer than accounting, finance, marketing, engineering, and so on. This physical layout indicates the extent to which leadership wants to drive home the cultural message that Infor prioritizes design at an executive level.

Aside from using physical space to send a social message, this proximity has the practical effect of connecting Hook and Loop's design team more closely to management. Although highly pragmatic for a company that prioritizes design to such an extent, it is unheard of among most $3 billion software companies.

Open seating at Infor headquarters. Photo by Infor.

The open seating layout at Hook and Loop extends to senior management. This photo shows CEO Charles Phillips and members of his team in their shared workspace. Once again, this arrangement makes the cultural statement that collaboration begins at the top.

Infor's collaborative executive space, including CEO Charles Phillips. Photo by Michael Krigsman.

Building user-oriented design thinking into core processes such as sales, software development, and consulting. Although Scibelli insists his team are not "design police," Hook and Loop has significant influence over Infor's internal processes and customer-facing deliverables. For example, processes such as developing customer proposals require sign-off from Hook and Loop.

Although building Hook and Loop into process workflows may sometimes slow things down, Infor sees this as a necessary part of ensuring that deliverables meet set standards for communication and quality.

work is beautiful
Work is beautiful slogan from the Infor website

I asked Scibelli what happens when people in the organization resist the extra steps or time required to meet this focus on design thinking and process. His response: "Charles and Duncan remove road blocks with passion."

It is worth nothing that adherence to standards of usability goes far beyond typical corporate style guides. In fact, the corporate branding function at Infor lies outside Hook and Loop.

Rewriting core software applications in accord with the broad design principles and business interactions advocated by Hook and Loop. Ultimately, Scibelli told me Infor hopes to "connect user needs to software design and software APIs." It is a goal that expresses the desire to embed user needs as the fabric underlying applications and the basic software platform.

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The consumerization of enterprise software has become a basic tenet among enterprise vendors and Infor is certainly not alone in investing in design. Parts of SAP, Microsoft, Oracle, to name three, are doing excellent work in this area.

But, to my knowledge, there is no comparably large software vendor attempting to transform itself with design to this degree. For Infor, design transformation is a strategic priority for its senior executives.

However, despite the fanfare Infor has not yet released metrics that link design to concrete improvements in user adoption or other financial measures. On the hand, it is hard to argue with the company's recent record of financial success, which is certainly based on a number of factors including the new approach to software and design.

It would be interesting and valuable to see Hook and Loop reimagine enterprise software implementations. Across the enterprise software industry as a whole, the implementation process is frequently dysfunctional and poorly serves the customer. I'd like to see Hook and Loop tackle that problem.

Disclosure: Infor paid part of my travel expenses to attend their analyst event in NYC.

Topics: CXO, Enterprise Software

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8 comments
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  • Meat market, call center, sterile

    I wonder how any collaboration gets done, with everyone in everyone else's face, given the pictures. If that works for them, I'm glad, but it wouldn't work for anyone I know. People need their privacy.

    At least, they could make the environment more friendly. Seems like a hospital or airport.

    If you like the typical lackadaisical 'help' you get from a call center, with all that noise in the background, fine. Sorry, I don't see how the environment can stimulate any real creativity. So if that's their 'design' for their employees, I don't but expect cookie-cutter designs in what they make. Pass.
    brainout
  • "We like blue"

    Ugh... People who don't realise they have no taste? Infor is for you.
    Dear Holy Stasis
  • Healthcare "MoneyBall"...

    Since you used an image of a hospital dashboard here, let's take a look at who Infor competes against too, tons of subsidiaries of United Healthcare as the company gets 1/3 of its revenue from Health IT today and 2/3 from insurance. This is a huge awakening for many but has been building for years. You can go to the SEC page and see 15 pages of subsidiary companies and it doesn't include companies to where they have 51% controlling interest either with so many of the doctor's groups they own. Here's an image if you want to look and see what is being sold to doctors and hospitals with "their" analytics..."Moneyball Analytics' which is a bit over the top but its' an image of what was in my mailbox.

    http://twitpic.com/e21w7d

    Sure I appreciate good engineering and software but in the world we live in today we are not getting it and you should be aware of what really goes on at the back end, a lot of data mining. Infor has to compete with the likes of United Healthcare who is so embedded in more ways than the average consumer realizes and they want their system included. When a big hospital system buys Cerner as an example, United makes some licensing money as Cerner licensed the Optum revenue cycling software and integrated it into Cerner. It's a big software turf battle.

    So yes I think better off working with the likes of Microsoft who has a better reputation for sure on some of this and at least there's more here in the US with them than in India as with Infor.
    MedicalQuack
    • You did know that Infor owns Lawson, right?

      United Healthcare may be the number 1 player in hospital IT, but Lawson is the number 1 player in doctors offices and medical centers. They have a much better reputation for medical management software than Microsoft ever will.
      jasonp@...
  • MediCareIT at large

    http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.svt.se%2Fagenda%2Flakarna-later-som-foretagsledare

    Can serve as an example on "how not to do" turning healthcare into computer care . .

    Sheer luck that I`m able to manage my own health.
    X15meshman
  • UI-centric design is a good thing

    I can't endorse Infor simply because I know so little about them at the moment. However, the notion of making UI design central to software development is something I have endorsed for the past 20+ years.

    Having been a software "engineer" and having dealt with many over the years I can say with great confidence that a large majority wouldn't be able to identify great UI design if their lives depended on it.

    Since the mid-90s I've used and/or vetted software used by companies large and small in several industry verticals from publishing to healthcare and finance...and with very few exceptions they share a common crappy user experience. One national bank's software was (and still is) so appallingly out-dated, cumbersome and kludgy that I wondered how employees ever managed to accomplish their day-to-day tasks.

    Daily uphill battles with one's primary applications are a productivity and morale killer.
    josephmartins
  • Fully ad

    Worse, since corporations are people too, what's the penalty for assault with a weapon?
    HypnoToad72
    • Oops. Fugly ad.

      Mobile spellchecker is cool
      HypnoToad72