When you ask CMMS users what they want most or what features they think are critical, many express a need to find data. Others convey the same message using phrases such as “user-friendly” or “easy-to-use.” These responses aren’t surprising considering the number of keystrokes users make day after day.
To be sure, most of us have experienced the frustration of wading through screen after screen, or row after row of data to find what we need buried somewhere in a given software package.
Thus, helping users navigate their way through the complex maze of today’s sophisticated software applications is clearly a priority for modern CMMS vendors. You should be aware of various navigation aids and the principles behind them.
It’s a matter of quality, not quantity. Some vendors proudly boast of the many ways to extract data from their CMMS. However, users often are confused when faced with too many alternative paths, unless it’s intuitive as to which:
- Is the fastest option
- Provides the data at the right level of detail in the desired format
- Gives users an easy search for related information
- Facilitates taking the appropriate action based on the data.
Thus, the quality of alternative navigation paths counts more than just quantity.
Users want to [b]balance ease of navigation with clutter.[b] Some CMMS vendors try to pack as much information on a given screen as possible so users need not navigate through numerous screens to find required information. However, vendors must strike a healthy balance between this worthy cause and the disadvantages of cluttering screens with excessive information. Several tools are available to vendors to achieve this balance:
- A series of related tabs on a screen
- Pull-down or pop-up windows that provide additional information when the user clicks on the icon next to a field
- Expandable/collapsible sections of a screen, usually indicated by an arrow or plus/minus sign beside the title of the section.
Users want consistency. One of the key advantages for software vendors to adopt global standards is the consistency it provides in the user interface. For example, there’s a high probability that a help screen will appear when you hit “F1” while using most software programs. But some CMMS vendors forget the importance of consistency when they use a certain navigation aid or user-centered design in the top of only one area of their application but not in others. For example, not every screen or every section of the package has a pull-down menu at the top to allow users to access relevant reports.
And, of course, you need a logical navigation framework. Software vendors must think like users when determining what tabs, links, toolbars and navigation paths to establish. For example, they need to know what information should be readily available from which screens. They need to know where the user needs to access, say, a standard parts list for a given asset or the asset’s maintenance history. A user must be able to determine how many parts are in stock and be able to order non-stock items, all within the work order screen. You want to determine who needs to approve an expenditure, at what dollar value and ensure they’re not on vacation when you need that approval. Finding this information must be intuitive. There’s a wide variation in how CMMS vendors provide this navigation framework for a maintenance process.
Key navigation features
Drill-down capability is one of the more popular features that support efficient, effective and intuitive navigation for users. This feature allows users to easily move from summary data to greater and greater levels of detail. For example, suppose you notice a summary level cost is significantly out of line for a given cost center, or a budget variance is high. Some CMMS packages allow you to double-click on that field or row and “drill down” to progressively greater levels of detail until you find the root cause. Look for a CMMS package that allows drill-down on any field.
Similarly, several CMMS vendors offer drill-down capability on graphic screens using “hot spots.” For example, hot spots should be available on a graphics parts book, graphics on a dashboard, graphics used for monitoring the condition of an asset, and maps showing asset locations. When you double-click on a hot spot, a blow-up of the hot spot appears. In many cases, you can continue to double-click on hot spots for greater detail. The better CMMS packages allow the addition of user-definable hot spots on a graphical display.
Related to drill-down capability, “drill-around” capability allows you to move horizontally to related data, as opposed to moving vertically through various levels of detail. For example, when you’re viewing a single equipment record and want to see the last time the equipment was purchased, the more comprehensive CMMS packages allow you, with a single keystroke, to view purchase history showing all purchase orders for that piece of equipment. Another keystroke reveals all the details on a PO, followed by a single keystroke to provide a listing of other vendors that can sell this equipment, and then one more keystroke to show current pricing of that piece of equipment by the alternate vendors. These keystrokes are made from within the original working screen.
User-definable launch points are navigation aids that CMMS vendors can use to help move quickly from one area of the CMMS to another. User-definable hot keys, menus, tabs and toolbars are fairly popular. One of the most useful features users cite is an MS Explorer-style hierarchical display of equipment, parts, corporate structure, G/L accounts, failure codes, suppliers, projects, employees, warehouses/stores, Help and many others. Unfortunately, many CMMS vendors haven’t caught on to this extremely useful format for organizing, finding and even moving objects around within these hierarchies.
Navigation history keeps track of where you’ve been on a site. The popularity of Web-based tools has given rise to navigational features such as back and forward buttons, favorites, bookmarks, screens most used and listings of previous screens visited or reports printed. These tools are meant to assist you retrace your steps and avoid having to reproduce what worked well in the past.
You’ll need a road map. In the past, users complained about not knowing where they were in the system. CMMS vendors now provide a system road map and tools to guide you to where you might want to go. Advanced navigation tools in this category include:
- An interactive address bar that not only shows your current location within the system hierarchy, but can be used as a “go to” feature
- Graphical workflow that shows you the steps within a process flow
- Wizards that walk you through a given process such as completing a work order
- Site maps that provide a listing of hot links to key screens within the CMMS program.
Don’t forget the search, sort and filter tools. In general, most CMMS packages have fairly good search, sort and filtering capability. The more comprehensive packages allow you to find the information faster using wildcards, speed search, auto-complete, searches based on partial data, suggested alternative spellings and other advanced features.
(Editor’s note: The Plant Services CMMS/EAM Software Review, posted at www.plantservices.com/cmms_review/software_review.html, provides a side-by-side comparison of more than a dozen popular software packages.)
E-mail Contributing Editor David Berger, P.Eng., partner, Western Management Consultants, at email@example.com.