How SAP uses anthropologists to build better software

An in-house team of anthropologists has helped SAP improve SuccessFactors, its HCM software, by drawing out insights from users that regular market research wouldn't find.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

There are plenty of people involved in building software, from engineers and product managers to visual designers and usability testers. Yet even with all of those people involved, the final product may not be optimally designed for the end user.

That's because there are some questions about human behavior that market research can't fully answer. When it comes to building enterprise software, according to SAP's James Harvey, the question is, "How people, either by themselves or collectively in teams, interact with a problem?"

As SVP of engineering and cloud operations for SAP SuccessFactors, Harvey has looked beyond the typical realm of technology workers to help answer that question. SAP SuccessFactors has a team of about a half dozen behavioral scientists who are constantly observing SAP customers and potential customers -- sitting down with people where they work and watching them work.

"They don't design, they don't write requirements, they don't do anything traditional software people do," Harvey said. "They focus on studying humans, interacting with problems."

Using anthropologists and behavioral scientists to assist in UX design isn't exactly a new concept. Decades ago, Xerox PARC relied on social scientists to help design copy machines. Major tech companies like Dell, Microsoft and Intel have long employed social scientists. And two years ago, Cognizant acquired a 49 percent stake in ReD Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in understanding human behavior. Cognizant and ReD Associates created a strategic partnership, showing how human sciences can complement IT services.

This approach also rhymes with design thinking, which has been deployed by other enterprise software vendors.

For SuccessFactors, behavioral sciences has helped solve some basic challenges in the realm of human resources. For one thing, it's shown SAP how to help people find other people.

While it sounds simple enough, Harvey said the "finding people problem" exists in all companies, especially after they have more than around 500 employees. SAP worked with Apple to learn how employees go about trying to locate and contact colleagues they need to communicate with.


"What we found in the research is that folks want to start with a name and then understand that person in context," Harvey said. "What team are they on, who's their manager, who reports to them? We found people would be going into a meeting and just wanted to understand more about who they were meeting with."

To get this kind of information, employees often resorted to outside sources of information like LinkedIn, Harvey said.

Following the research, SAP updated the SuccessFactors iOS app with a new, visual feature that shows the user the relationships between different employees. Users can navigate their company's organization chart with their thumb to see different relationships. They can also learn about where a colleague is geographically, and they can get useful information such as the local time at that location. They can also contact that colleague directly from the feature.

The redesign was a "massive hit," Harvey said, with downloads of the app skyrocketing in comparison to the previous version.

SAP also used its behavioral science team to learn more about how HR departments work within an organization to facilitate succession planning.

HR teams typically use information about employees, such as past performance reviews, to help determine who could replace various senior executives. SAP's team sat in on meetings where members of the HR department delivered presentations about such candidates. One problem that became apparent, Harvey said, was that the information would at times be out of date -- a candidate may have moved to a different role or left the company entirely.

"When that happened, HR lost trust with the executive management team," Harvey said. "When we saw that problem over and over, we realized HR needed live data within that presentation."

That prompted SAP to deliver a capability within its talent planning model that pulls in live data. The need for such a feature may not have been so apparent without the behavioral science team, Harvey said.

"If you sat down and spoke to HR, you probably wouldn't have heard about that problem because it's embarrassing," he said. "But when you sit in the meeting and observe, that's where you see these kinds of real-life events that are happening and how people are responding to these events, and that's the power of behavioral science."

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