Unified Interfaces for Sky and Lightning

Unified Interfaces for Sky and Lightning

Evolving technology requires evolving user interfaces, but Microsoft, Salesforce and Marketo are underestimating the challenges this causes for their users.

One of the things I love about being a consultant is the sheer variety of projects that I get to work on. I regularly interact with a wide range of technology and use cases spanning the full enterprise tech stack. Seeing the evolution of business needs, platforms and user experience over time across the entire industry over a ten year period shows just how radical many organisations can be when they put their mind to it. This is true as much for the technology vendors as it is for the marketing and sales teams that use their end products.

In recent years, many of the leading CRM and Marketing Automation have gone through radical UI redesigns. Salesforce have Lightning, Marketo have Sky and Microsoft have the Unified Interface for Dynamics. Actually getting customers to adopt the new workflows that these experiences provide has been a significant challenge. It doesn't matter what the potential benefits are, far too many admins never bother to give more than a five second glance to whatever new features are being offered.

Eloqua managed to overcome this a decade ago for their transition from Eloqua 9 to Eloqua 10, by marketing the new UI as an entirely new product and by offering managed upgrades both directly and through partners. Even then there was a lot of pushback, and the company had a dedicated professional services team carrying out the migrations over the span of multiple years. Eloqua 10 was very barebones at release and often buggy. As a result, migration didn't really get getting until a couple of years after the product had been on the market for new customers.

Salesforce have adopted a similar approach for Lightning. They have started forcibly upgrading customers unless they proactively opt-out by creating custom security profiles. There are valid reasons for doing this. Salesforce are no longer developing the classic experience, and no doubt would like to remove it at soon point, probably sooner rather than later. That would not be an unreasonable expectation for most SaaS platforms, as Lightning was first released nearly four years ago in October 2015. CRM systems are somewhat different from a point solution, as they are frequently heavily customised to fit a customer's core business requirements far more deeply than many other applications. In some cases, this can involve custom development using triggers and visualforce that might require substantial re-development effort before any upgrade to Lightning can take place. The majority of Salesforce customisations are compatible with Lightning, but some are not which is problematic if your business processes depend on them.

That highlights the biggest barrier to the lightning upgrade for many organisations. The Lightning Experience looks very different from the classic experience. Sure, if you make an effort to use it, you discover that the basic workflow isn't too different to classic, but many salespeople simply won't make the effort for what is essentially an admin task. Pretty much all businesses of any size struggle to get Sales to actually use CRM to any meaningful degree unless there are financial incentives attached to doing so. Changing the UI from one which privileges lead or opportunity details to one which puts activity and timelines front and centre is a big shift that will throw many power users for a loop without proper training.

In many respects, Sales users familiar with Microsoft Dynamics might have an easier time adapting to Lightning than users of Salesforce Classic. That's partially because Dynamics uses are more familiar with UI changes than Salesforce users, but also because there has been a convergence in the UI of the two leading CRM platforms. Microsoft are notorious for making major changes to the look and feel of their products every few years, and Dynamics is no exception. However, Dynamics users will be familiar with process flows at the top of the lead and opportunity records, as well as with tabbed contact and account views. Both of these UI innovations were seen in Dynamics prior to the launch of Salesforce Lightning.

Microsoft did introduce another round of UI changes last year, with the launch of their Unified Interface. In terms of end user experience, the changes aren't actually that big. The top navigation has been changed to a side navigation, but should otherwise be reasonably familiar for anyone with previous experience of Dynamics CRM. Instead, the big changes are confined to the backend, which had been totally overhauled. The product is now a modular application built on top of Microsoft's PowerApps code-free application development platform. This allows customers to tap into the Dynamics database to build add-on apps in the same way that the force platform can be used to extend Salesforce. The traditional Dynamics server still exists and is used for various pieces of functionality that have not yet found its way into PowerApps and the related Microsoft Flow process automation tool.

Upending your developer story with a radical change to the backend is a brave move, but one that Microsoft have tried before across other products with mixed success. It does make sense though as administrators and developers are generally far more willing to learn a new UI and new workflows than standard users. The various Dynamics products have long needed far more intuitive admin pages, as the UI of the configuration screens was several generations behind those of the front end. Given the increasing adoption of Dynamics, this is an important consideration. It certainly makes my life easier.

Written by
Marketing Operations Consultant and Solutions Architect at CRMT Digital specialising in marketing technology architecture. Advisor on marketing effectiveness and martech optimisation.