Monday Jul 09, 2012

Schmelp Portal, Help Portal: Oracle Fusion Applications Help Online

Yes, the Oracle Fusion Applications Help (or "Help Portal" to us insiders) is now available. Click the link fusionhelp.oracle.com and check it out! Built using Oracle Application Development Framework components.

Oracle Fusion Applications Help user interface

Oracle Fusion Applications Help user interface

If you're developing your own help for Fusion Apps, then you can use the newly published Oracle Fusion Help User Interface Guidelines to understand the best usage. These guidelines are also a handy way to get to the embedded help design patterns for Oracle Fusion Applications, now also available.

To customize and extend the help content itself no longer requires the engagement of your IT Department or expensive project work. Customers can now use the Manage Custom Help capability to edit or add whatever content they need, make it secure and searchable, and develop a community around it too. You can see more of that capability in this slideshare.net presentation from UKOUG Ireland 2012 about the Oracle Fusion Applications User Assistance and Support Ecosystem by Ultan O'Broin and Richard Bingham.

Manage Custom Help capability

Manage Custom Help capability

To understand the science and craft that went into the creation and delivery of the "Help Portal" (cardiac arrests all round in Legal and Marketing Depts), then check out this great white paper by Ultan O'Broin and Laurie Pattison: Putting the User into Oracle Fusion Applications User Assistance.

So, what's with this "Help Portal" name? Well, that's an internal (that is, internal to Oracle) name only and we should all really call it by the correct product listing name: Oracle Fusion Applications Help. To be honest, I don't care what you call it as long as it is useful. However, these internal names can be problematic when talking with support or the licensing people. For years, we referred casually to the Oracle Applications Help or Oracle Applications Help System that ships with the Oracle E-Business Suite products as "iHelp". Then, somebody went and bought Siebel.

Game over.

Monday Apr 23, 2012

Customizing FND Message Numbers in Oracle Fusion Applications: Manage Messages UI and UX Stakeholders

I am often asked about removing the numbers that are shown with error messages in Oracle Fusion Applications. In fact, this can be done easily using the Manage Messages user interface (UI) Message Number field. A Manage Messages task flow is integrated into the Oracle Fusion Functional Setup Manager, and access to this is documented in the Oracle Fusion Applications Developer's Guide 11g.

Manage Messages UI in Oracle Fusion Applications

Manage Messages UI in Oracle Fusion Applications

But before you do, let’s explore what these numbers are for, and if and when you might want to remove then, and what the process should be.

Message Numbers Explained

These message numbers are assigned to error messages and warning messages stored in the FND messages table. Each product has a message number range assigned and the number itself takes the format of a product short code followed by a unique number. For example:

The message number in Oracle Fusion Applications FND messages is shown after the message

Message number in Oracle Fusion Applications FND message shown after the message text

For customer extensions too, a reserved number range for FND messages is provided: 10,000,000 to 10,999,999.

Unlike the Oracle E-Business Suite (EBS) FND messages, these numbers appear after the summary message and not before. There is no Oracle Fusion Applications user preference to turn such numbers on or off or to hide or disclose them when a message is shown. They’re either there or they’re not. The numbers can also be on FND messages used for warnings at times.

Oracle Fusion Applications also uses ADF messages stored in resource bundles, and not just the FND messages ones. The ADF error messages are usually provided for native validation (such as for required fields, validators and converters) or navigation between ADF components. These types of messages do not have the numbers. Neither do any of the so-called common FND messages.

The Oracle Fusion Applications Developer's Guide 11g is your friend for understanding the message types.

How Are FND Message Numbers Used?


The numbers are used as reference indicators for Oracle Support to look up knowledge base information about reported errors or incidents. Because the message numbers are the same regardless of the language translation means that Oracle Support teams do not actually need to have a translation of the message text itself and can cross-reference resolutions from English if necessary.

The numbers are also used by AppsLogger when an incident is created and are included in the text output for logs.

Generally, Applications User Experience (UX) research shows that only internal help desk personnel or other enterprise support representatives want to report issues or message numbers to Oracle Support. Help desk operators do not like apps end users searching for their own solutions externally (apps user profiles are different to DB admins who might Google ORA numbers, for example). Instead, the help desk prefers their users to report issues to the help desk directly (or in the case of app failure by way of an implicit or explictly-raised incident). Frankly, even when end users do look up these numbers on the Internet (assuming they can), there is little they can do with the information anyway.

All said, you may find that some end users are irritated by these numbers and can consider removing the numbers on user experience (UX) grounds.

Which Messages Numbers Could Be Removed?


When might you want to remove the FND message numbers? In my UX opinion, the following types of FND messages are worth considering for customization in this regard:

  • Messages for simple client-side, individual ADF component validations.
  • Messages used for navigation or other UI rules.
  • Warning messages with questions that require confirmation by users before proceeding.
  • Common messages created in a product area that might or might not raise an incident.

I recommend that you never remove a number from an error message, warning or information message that is used for an application failure, or for an incident or log creation (AppsLogger won’t work unless there is a unique number there). Complex business rule messages, at EO level, for example, are also best left with message numbers.

You can use these guidelines when creating new FND messages too. If the message number is not in the FND message table, the message will still display. The number does not have any impact on the rendering.

Removing Numbers: Who Needs To Be Involved?


Successful implementations and customizations require the engagement of end users but also other stakeholders in a requirements and change management process to agree what the user experience will be.

So, if you are considering removing these message numbers, then you need to understand the context of use and identify appropriate stakeholders. These stakeholders may be internal and external to your organization. I suggest the following stakeholders for deciding about message numbers: end users, development teams or consultants who know about incidents and validation, internal help desks, internal training groups, Oracle Support, or other support representatives that you use.

After that, then you can make decisions about numbers changes. Do not just remove the message numbers without stakeholders, or without gathering your use case, assessing the real UX impact of their presence (users just don’t like ‘em or are they actually consuming time dealing with complaints about them and adding no task completion value?), and determining which numbers are really important to your help desk, support representatives and also to Oracle Support.

By the way, FND messages are seed data so changes are patch and upgrade survivable just like in Oracle EBS.

Questions or UX advice needed on any of this? Find them comments.

Monday Mar 07, 2011

Community Conversation

Applications User Experience members (Erika Webb, Laurie Pattison, and I) attended the User Assistance Europe Conference in Stockholm, Sweden. We were impressed with the thought leadership and practical application of ideas in Anne Gentle's keynote address "Social Web Strategies for Documentation". After the conference, we spoke with Anne to explore the ideas further.

annegentle4.jpg

Applications User Experience Senior Director Laurie Pattison (left) with Anne Gentle at the User Assistance Europe Conference

In Anne's book called Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, she explains how user assistance is undergoing a seismic shift. The direction is away from the old print manuals and online help concept towards a web-based, user community-driven solution using social media tools.

User experience professionals now have a vast range of such tools to start and nurture this "conversation": blogs, wikis, forums, social networking sites, microblogging systems, image and video sharing sites, virtual worlds, podcasts, instant messaging, mashups, and so on.

That user communities are a rich source of user assistance is not a surprise, but the extent of available assistance is. For example, we know from the Consortium for Service Innovation that there has been an 'explosion' of user-generated content on the web. User-initiated community conversations provide as much as 30 times the number of official help desk solutions for consortium members!

The growing reliance on user community solutions is clearly a user experience issue. Anne says that user assistance as conversation "means getting closer to users and helping them perform well. User-centered design has been touted as one of the most important ideas developed in the last 20 years of workplace writing. Now writers can take the idea of user-centered design a step further by starting conversations with users and enabling user assistance in interactions."

Some of Anne's favorite examples of this paradigm shift from the world of traditional documentation to community conversation include:

bob_bringhurst.png

Adobe Writer Bob Bringhurst's Blog

Oracle is not without a user community conversation too. Besides the "community discussions and blogs around documentation offerings, we have the My Oracle Support Community forums, Oracle Technology Network  (OTN) communities, wiki, blogs, and so on. We have the great work done by our user groups and customer councils. Employees like David Haimes are reaching out, and enthusiastic non-employee gurus like Chet Justice (OracleNerd), Floyd Teter and Eddie Awad provide great "how-to" information too.

But what does this paradigm shift mean for existing technical writers as users turn away from the traditional printable PDF manual deliverables? We asked Anne after the conference. The writer role becomes one of conversation initiator or enabler. The role evolves, along with the process, as the users define their concept of user assistance and terms of engagement with the product instead of having it pre-determined. It is largely a case now of "inventing the job while you're doing it, instead of being hired for it" Anne said. There is less emphasis on formal titles. Anne mentions that her own title "Content Stacker" at OpenStack; others use titles such as "Content Curator" or "Community Lead". However, the role remains one essentially about communications, "but of a new type--interacting with users, moderating, curating content, instead of sitting down to write a manual from start to finish."

Clearly then, this role is open to more than professional technical writers. Product managers who write blogs, developers who moderate forums, support professionals who update wikis, rock star programmers with a penchant for YouTube are ideal. Anyone with the product knowledge, empathy for the user, and flair for relationships on the social web can join in. Some even perform these roles already but do not realize it. Anne feels the technical communicator space will move from hiring new community conversation professionals (who are already active in the space through blogging, tweets, wikis, and so on) to retraining some existing writers over time. Our own research reveals that the established proponents of community user assistance even set employee performance objectives for internal content curators about the amount of community content delivered by people outside the organization!

To take advantage of the conversations on the web as user assistance, enterprises must first establish where on the spectrum their community lies. "What is the line between community willingness to contribute and the enterprise objectives?" Anne asked. "The relationship with users must be managed and also measured." Anne believes that the process can start with a "just do it" approach. Begin by reaching out to existing user groups, individual bloggers and tweeters, forum posters, early adopter program participants, conference attendees, customer advisory board members, and so on. Use analytical tools to measure the level of conversation about your products and services to show a return on investment (ROI), winning management support.

Anne emphasized that success with the community model is dependent on lowering the technical and motivational barriers so that users can readily contribute to the conversation. Simple tools must be provided, and guidelines, if any, must be straightforward but not mandatory. The conversational approach is one where traditional style and branding guides do not necessarily apply. Tools and infrastructure help users to create content easily, to search and find the information online, read it, rate it, translate it, and participate further in the content's evolution. Recognizing contributors by using ratings on forums, giving out Twitter kudos, conference invitations, visits to headquarters, free products, preview releases, and so on, also encourages the adoption of the conversation model.

The move to conversation as user assistance is not free, but there is a business ROI. The conversational model means that customer service is enhanced, as user experience moves from a functional to a valued, emotional level. Studies show a positive correlation between loyalty and financial performance (Consortium for Service Innovation, 2010), and as customer experience and loyalty become key differentiators, user experience professionals cannot explore the model's possibilities.

The digital universe (measured at 1.2 million petabytes in 2010) is doubling every 12 to 18 months, and 70 percent of that universe consists of user-generated content (IDC, 2010). Conversation as user assistance cannot be ignored but must be embraced. It is a time to manage for abundance, not scarcity. Besides, the conversation approach certainly sounds more interesting, rewarding, and fun than the traditional model!

I would like to thank Anne for her time and thoughts, and recommend that all user assistance professionals read her book. You can follow Anne on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/annegentle.

Sunday Nov 14, 2010

A Conversational Style

I've been reading a superb paper called "Engaging Diverse Audiences With Screencasts, Wikis, and Blogs", written by Gail Chappell and Cindy Church of Oracle. While they were with Sun Microsystems, Gail and Cindy presented the paper at the 2008 STC Summit:.

The paper is rich in ideas for anyone interested in the community user assistance model--I'll return to that subject later--but their thoughts on adopting a conversational style really struck home:  

For the blog and the wiki, however, the writing was less formal and more folksy--we used our own writing style and own voices. We did not strictly follow the editorial style guidelines, nor did we pass the wiki or blog content to an editor. However, we did adhere to our company's branding requirements and blog guidelines.  

The blog was a good place for us to use a conversational style, as we frequently engaged in conversations with our readers. In fact, we were on a first-name basis with many who regularly read the blog. We also used the more conversational style when responding to customers who used the feedback mechanism in our tutorials and screencasts.

JavaFX Blog article on animations

Complete common sense. A conversational writing style that talks with users rather than at them or to them. We'd do well to follow this user-centred design approach to language in all of our blog and wiki efforts. And, what better way to change the antideluvian "say Web site, not website" mentality than harnessing the voice of the community too.

If you can get your hands on Cindy and Gail's paper and presentation through your local STC chapter (and internal Oracle employees should be able to get a later update too), I think you'll find it's well worth reading.

Friday Oct 15, 2010

The Community Support Explosion

Not convinced of the power of community support, eh? Then I urge you to check out this presentation from Greg Oxton of the Consortium for Service Innovation (CSI). Incredible. A very important statement about why enterprises need to be aware of--and harness--the power of their user communities.

csi_community_support.png
(Image copyright CSI 2010) Oracle is a member of the CSI.

Monday Aug 09, 2010

Unexpected Errors: Were They Ever Expected, Anyway?!

I'm sure you've seen error messages that say something like "Unexpected error occurred. Contact your system administrator." Fairly useless error messages I would say, actually, and an approach I do not promote in my team.

When, for example, is an error message ever expected? And how do you contact your system administrator (even if you know who or what that is)?

contact_your_sysadmin.png

Figure 1: Why Not Just Ask Alice?

I was reminded of all this as I read the section about "Make sure your error messages cover unexpected problems" in the UX Matters article "Avoid Being Embarrassed by Your Error Messages". However, in the enterprise applicastion space, additional requirements should be met for these "unexpected errors":

  • Firstly, a unique message identifier (or number) should be attached to the message itself. This can be disclosed progressively, coming after the message or made visible by way of a 'More Details' option on the message dialog for example. These identifiers can serve different purposes: They can allow the user to search on the number and find a solution is the most common one.

    However, in many enterprise scenarios this option is usually of little use to the end user. Instead, help desk or support analysts can use the number to search for, and record, solutions in knowledge bases. Being the same identifier across translated releases, as well as the English release, means that the analyst does not need to translate the message into English to find a solution too. The analyst looks up the identifier.

  • Secondly, end users should never be told to contact their system administrator (figure 1) or to try and recreate the error or type out what they were doing (even if they could). The message handling framework should do all that automatically for the user. Oracle Apps refer to this process as incident creation (or alerting) and diagnostic logging.

    When serious messages are shown to the user an incident is automatically raised and diagnostic logs (usually) created too, alerting the help desk to the issue and collecting all the necessary background details for the help desk analyst. In these cases, a straightforward message text tells the user that their problem has been recorded for them.The technical details are not disclosed to the end user, but instead, the help desk can use the incident and diagnostic tools to deal with the cause of the problem (figure 2). End users should not be dealing with complicated tech stack details. They can't do anything with them to fix the problem.
application_error_dialog.png

Figure 2: Possible Error Dialog for Non-user Actionable Message

All too often discussions and guidance about error messages are disconnected from the Support framework provided in the enterprise space and the reality of applications security and roles. A posited solution based on something like "Unexpected error. We didn't think you'd ever see this message, but you have. Please contact us and give us this error code: [Error Code]" doesn't really move the user experience argument very far in the right direction of recording why an user-unrecoverable error happened automatically and doing as much work for the user as possible.

Remember that "unexpected" error messages the beginning of a customer engagement process with the help desk and possibly support analysts, so make it as easy as possible.

Thursday Nov 26, 2009

What Do Users Want as User Assistance on Mobile Devices?

One of the great things about my job working on the user experience user assistance team is I get to do research all aspects of user assistance on all kinds of platforms and devices. This is serious research, but it's fun too!

I love working with mobile devices, and already have too many to play with at home too. Recently, myself and my coworker Rhonda Nelson conducted a focus group with some users of business apps on mobile devices to find out what alerts, messages or help they wanted while working. From our research, empirical observation (and own experiences) we figured that the possibilities offered by native device capabilities might be mentioned (consider, for example, how users of GPS-capable devices like the Android HTC or Apple iPhone might use Google Maps to "help" them locate or transit), but would this expectation be borne out by the focus group? What else would be revealed by the users?

Well, you can find out by reading the usableapps blog article "Researching What Users Want from Help and Alerts on a Mobile Device". We will continue research into user assistance on mobile devices, including the use of e-readers like the Kindle or Nook - really looking forward to some interesting UX research with our users!

About

Oracle applications user experience (UX) assistance. UX and development outreach of all sorts to the apps community, helping to design and deliver usable apps.

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Ultan Ó Broin. Director, Global Applications User Experience, Oracle Corporation. On Twitter: @ultan

See my other Oracle blog about product globalization too: Not Lost in Translation

Interests: User experience (UX), user centered design, design patterns, tailoring, BYOD, dev relations, language quality, mobile apps, Oracle FMW and ADF, and a lot more.

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