UX for Intelligent Situation Handling

Help business users to deal with the unexpected

Vladimir Shapiro
Experience Matters


The business world is full of situations. You miss your train to the office and need to reschedule a meeting. A colleague calls in sick, putting a major project milestone at risk. Or a supplier can’t fulfill your order, leaving you to find a workaround.

What do these situations have in common?

  • You don’t expect them.
  • You may not be familiar with them.
  • You need to deal with them.

It’s no wonder that whenever you encounter a situation like this, you’ll tend to feel uncomfortable or even stressed. It disrupts your usual routine — although you’re still operating within your business domain, you’re forced to deal with something that’s not part of your daily business. To find a solution, you need to rely on what you can recall from past experience. And very often, pressing deadlines mean you need to make decisions fast.

So how can business software improve this experience? And what exactly do we mean by “situation handling”?

Components of Situation Handling

It’s not surprising that one of the concepts for dealing with situations comes from the military. OODA Loop, introduced by U.S. Airforce Colonel John Boyd, consists of four components: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. Although OODA was originally developed for military operations, the approach has become increasingly popular in the business world as a way to manage uncertainty and speed up decision-making.

As a business user, I have similar needs when I deal with business situations:

  • I want to be informed about the situation early enough (observation).
  • I need to understand the context (business impact) to make decisions (orientation).
  • I need to find a solution and apply it (decide and act).

How can we address these needs in practice?

Use Case Example

Imagine the following scenario: Paul is responsible for procuring IT equipment for his company. He recently ordered 50 new laptops, but the supplier has confirmed only 30 of them. The planned delivery date is quite close. Although this information is already in the system, Paul isn’t yet aware of the situation.

How can we help him?

Improved Observation: Situation Indicator

Let’s start by surfacing the issue to Paul. Imagine he is already working on the order affected by the situation. Compare the following two UIs for an order item:

Design exploration — Purchase order item screens with and without situation indicator (Copyright: SAP SE)
Design exploration — Purchase order item screens with and without situation indicator (Copyright: SAP SE)

The first example on the left provides all the details Paul needs for his day-to-day tasks. But how can he see that part of the order is affected by the situation? Even if he’s aware that there’s an issue, he needs to browse through several sections and do some math to calculate the actual deficit of 20 undelivered laptops.

In the second example on the right, the system displays a small interactive indicator in the header, which gives Paul an initial heads-up on the issue.

Let’s take a closer look at the information Paul is given at this stage.

Design exploration — Anatomy of interactive situation indicator (Copyright: SAP SE)
Design exploration — Anatomy of interactive situation indicator (Copyright: SAP SE)

By clicking on the interactive situation indictor (A), Paul opens a situation preview (B) to get an initial summary of the issue. The preview contains basic information (C), including a situation title, when the situation occurred, and a short description (D). The system also supplies the related information (E), such as the quantity missing and delivery deadline.

Now Paul knows enough about the situation to decide how relevant it is for him. If the situation requires his full attention, he can drill into the details (F) and enter the next phase of the situation handling process.

Helpful Orientation: Situation Page

When Paul calls up the details, the system displays a dedicated UI — the situation page. Unlike the preceding UIs, which focus on a particular object (such as an order item), the situation page focuses on the problem.

Design exploration — Situation page anatomy (Copyright: SAP SE)

In the situation header (A), Paul sees the basic situation data, including its status and processor details. The related information section (B) contains data about the delivery deficit and the affected purchase order, which helps Paul to understand the business impact. Finally, the system offers Paul concrete recommendations (C) for resolving the issue.

Paul now has a better understanding of the situation and has all the information he needs to make an informed decision.

Decide & Act Using Solution Proposals

Let’s zoom into the solution proposal section.

Design exploration — Anatomy of ‘Solution Proposals’ section (Copyright: SAP SE)
Design exploration — Anatomy of ‘Solution Proposals’ section (Copyright: SAP SE)

To support Paul in his decision-making process, the system proposes two possible solutions (A). The proposals are ranked (B) based on a specific algorithm, which is made transparent to Paul using an explanation (C). In this case, the proposals are based on similar situations in the past.

By making this information transparent to Paul, we help him to understand the logic behind the proposals and increase his trust in the system.

Paul decides to follow the preferred recommendation to create a new order with the new supplier. Now he is ready to act.

Design exploration — Screen sequence for applying a solution proposal (Copyright: SAP SE)
Design exploration — Screen sequence for applying a solution proposal (Copyright: SAP SE)

Paul applies the proposal using a modal dialog, without leaving the situation context (1). After filling in the details, he sends his request to the new supplier. The system updates the processing state (2A) and highlights the applied solution proposal (2B).

Paul is done for now. The system brought the issue to his attention at the right moment and in the right context. He was able to minimize the amount of time spent on orientation and decision-making. Now he can return to his daily business (or enjoy a well-deserved coffee and donut!).

The Way Forward

Situations will always be part of business life, but with the right system support, they can be made much easier to deal with. By incorporating dedicated situation handling into our software, we can address the challenges and needs of business users and enhance their overall experience.

  • Yes, situations may be unexpected.
    Make them transparent to users, and help them to observe or even predict situations in a proactive manner.
  • Yes, situations may be unfamiliar.
    Provide users with related information for better orientation.
  • Yes, situations need to be resolved.
    Support users in their decision-making process. Make the underlying logic behind solution proposals transparent and enable users to act without leaving the situation context.

Of course, there are more things to explore. For example, how to integrate situation handling into an existing design system? Or, how to combine situations with possible automation of your business decisions?

I’ll continue to share my experiences around the design of situation handling in future blogs. In the meantime, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

Want to learn more?

Special thanks to Joachim Sander and Susanne Wilding for reviewing and editing this article.



Vladimir Shapiro
Experience Matters

User Experience Director at Blue Yonder / SAP Alumni