Workspaces — Powerful tool, used wrong…

Okay, today I am going to tell you about the pattern that is demonstrated a lot, used occasionally, and understood by a few. You have already discovered, from the article itself, that I am going to talk about “Workspace” pattern. This pattern, or rather forms that utilize this pattern, became unofficial symbol of new AX design, and to be honest, not only AX. This layout originates from “Metro” design language of Windows 8, and utilizes same familiar UX features — horizontal navigation, section based structure, tiles. It clearly shows that Dynamics 365, or rather AX 7 was in work for quite some time and I guess we would end up with other look for “Workspace” if layout were built with “MDL2" design language in mind. And if you had had a chance to access early versions of AX 7 betas, you would have agreed that UI changed a lot towards modern Windows 10 look. And yet, “Workspace” pattern remained almost the same, as they were initially shown, even though “Main dashboard” itself was changed from “Panorama” to the current representation, that doesn’t align with other UWP-layouts so I don’t have a proper name for it. Anyways, let’s forget about pesky terminology and have a look on “Workspace” itself:

Huh, probably, this is the first time when I haven’t created a real example for this blog. Anyways, let me simplify that wireframe for you:

That’s better. Now, you can clearly see that there are four different types of sections that can be used — “Summary”, “Tabbed list”, “Charts” and “Links”. The idea behind this layout is to help user navigate from section to section regardless device (or rather “screen size”) he uses. That is why “Summary” section is always the first one. It is meant to provide the most crucial info to the user. Tiles themselves represent a different degree of importance according to their contents and size. There are four tile sizes: small, medium, wide — that is oddly shrunk in height compared to wide tile in Windows 10, and large one. And there are five types of tile contents: icon, counter — that is based on a basic query, KPI or chart — that are based on more complex data entity, and image — the only type that probably shouldn’t be used at all, because your ERP deserves better than just some random photos from photo-stock. While designing your workspace, you shouldn’t treat tiles as a modern approach to buttons/menu items.

“Tabbed list” section contains grids, grouped in tabs, that might provide some additional inside on what’s going on. They are ideal when you need to give user an ability to compare data from different places, but you don’t want to bury your user in a troublesome navigation from one form to another. Unfortunately, screenshot above shows some fancy way to display data inside of a tab, but usually it is just a set of regular grids with data, nothing more. But don’t treat tabbed list as a thing that should contain all info from “Details Master - grid view” form. Instead it should be used as a simplified version of forms that are hidden beneath workspace, to provide quick glance on a data itself. Although there is an ability to have multiple “Tabbed list” section per workspace, you should consider twice before placing more than one. The thing is that tabbed list form part, by its nature, is meant to contain more than one tab, and probably it is a good idea to group them in that way.

“Chart” sections give you a glance on what’s going on. Data behind those chart is way too complex to be fit in a form of regular grid and cannot be described by one particular KPI, that is why it is displayed as a chart. It is technically possible to have more than one “Chart” section, but I would say that the only reason to do so if you have different sets of charts, or to separate Power BI charts from built-in AX chart sections.

“Link” sections are always located in the end of “Panorama” to indicate that there is no other info that might require immediate attention. Think of them as an easy place to navigate to related sections or other places user might.

But let’s finish with UI description and try to dig into my second thesis — “used occasionally”. And by “occasionally” I mean that workspaces are usually not taken into account at design stage. And the thing is that for quite some time, ordinary AX user’s navigation was centered around “List page” or “Details master/transactions” forms, sometimes accompanied by handful of “Inquiry dialogs” or Reports. So, as we do get into the stage when old AX clients are modernizing their solutions, they initially try to update all their legacy forms, and think of new approaches afterwards. And that might not sound as an issue. Software development is an iterative process — we do some core stuff and only then built new features on that base. But if we want to shift our mindset, we need to start thinking from “behavior” perspective, rather than pure “feature” side. Theoretically, it is even possible to build the whole system around concept of “Workspaces”. To do so, we need to divide our users on groups, that have shared responsibilities and duties (as we do, when we setup security roles). After that, we can design our workspaces for each user-group, and create actual forms, reports and charts, that will form content or rather tools included in workspaces. It is actually similar to “Test-driven-development” approach, but from UI perspective.

Right now, you probably think, that I am out of my mind, and there is no way to design ERP system using that kind of approach. But there is the third component that we yet need to talk about — “understood by a few”. As any other pattern in AX, “Workspace” has its own purpose. Its purpose is to show user critical data, draw his attention and provide him a set of tools to handle situation. If you think of it, there was a way for Microsoft to re-arrange this pattern to avoid “Panorama” style. But they stuck to that way of displaying data and arranging tools, because it gives user a notion of “flow”.

So, on the left side, user will see key metrics and indicators, that will draw his attention. The left top corner is basically the first place that we notice on the screen, that is why I recommend not to use pictures as a content for tile — they draw away attention. In case, if nothing special is shown on tiles, user can easily navigate to tabbed list, that will provide him with more detailed information and charts, that will give him a clearer vision of whole picture. That is why position of elements is crucial for workspaces, and why they should not be treated just as a set of tools. And that is also the reason not to create “Workspace” for each and every module to group main forms on them. We already have those forms in regular menu, there is no need to duplicate them on Workspaces if there is no other reason to do so.

Okay, this article might have created more questions in your head than I ever could answer. And I hope it did. Just remember — Workspace is just another form in AX, and as any other form it has its own role.