There’s been a huge level of interest towards my previous blog post on the updated user experience in the next Dynamics CRM version, codename Orion. A wealth of great comments have been added by #MSDYNCRM community members both here and on the LinkedIn Dynamics CRM Group thread. Thank you all for contributing into the discussion around the future direction of CRM!
Based on these comments and observations, I decided to write down some further thoughts of mine on the potential impact of Orion. After all, it will be a while before the next Dynamics CRM release is officially out the door (notice how it’s almost “light years away” in timeline slide below?), so we’ve got plenty of time to kill.
The Aftermath of Polaris
The Polaris release in January seems to have raised a few concerns among customers and consultants, specifically on these two fronts:
- CRM Online only – is Microsoft going to ignore its on-premises customers?
If we start from the Online part, Microsoft has made it clear already some time ago that they will proceed with an “Online first” strategy when it comes to updates and new features. While previously the gap between the on-premises and Online environments in terms of feature availability has been fairly small (with many hotfixes still arriving first for on-premises customers), Polaris really shifted this balance by introducing a whole new user interface with the process forms as well as integrations to external services like Bing Maps and Skype.
If you were only casually following the product roadmap announcements from Microsoft last fall, it will have been easy to miss the fine print that said the December 2012 Service Update was for CRM Online customers only. Although Microsoft has basically promised that all of the new features will be introduced also in the on-premises version, with no specific release dates available yet, this message may not have been very comforting to those who were mistaken to expect the new Polaris features for their CRM servers already in December. Many blog posts were later on written to clarify the differences between Update Rollup 12 and Polaris, so clearly there was some room left for improvement in the product roadmap communication strategy for future releases.
Since Orion will be a major version release with synchronized contents for all deployment models, it’s only a matter of time before we’ll return back to the status of feature parity between Online and on-premises. However, it’s also just a matter of time before there’s a further release planned that targets CRM Online customers only. As has been stated, the plan is to have one release per year for on-premises and two for Online, so it’s best to adjust yourself to the idea that the latest innovations will be piloted in the Microsoft cloud. On-premises remains a perfectly viable option (or the only option for some customer groups), but things just won’t move as fast there as they do in the cloud. When dealing with business software, that’s not always such a bad thing actually.
Let Them Eat Jscript
Just like the “Online only” nature of Polaris, the support for scripts or, more precisely, the lack of it wasn’t a widely advertised quality of the new UI. This limitation has understandably caused frustration in different departments. Funnily enough, having the privilege of access to new features doesn’t necessarily make you any happier if you end up feeling that something has been taken away from you at the same time.
For existing CRM Online customers with form scripts already applied, be it for simple conditional logic related to fields and values or more complex calculations, it has meant that the benefits of the new UI can’t be taken into use without cutting back on functionality that exists in the old UI. For new customers who sign up for a CRM Online trial it can come as a surprise that in order to implement the business logic that the organization needs, their Microsoft partner will have to “downgrade” them to a UI that looks very different from the one that got the excited about the product during the 30 day trial.
If you ask me, I think the problem really is that Polaris wasn’t released as the “iPad client” but rather as the new user interface for all clients. This brought the requirements for the UI onto a whole different level and, unfortunately, at this level Polaris isn’t able to compete with the classic forms yet. If the Flow UX was something that the users themselves could easily switch to, similar to using the “/m” in the CRM URL to access the Mobile Express version, consultants and administrators wouldn’t need to be cautious about enabling this new UX alonside the fully functional Ribbon UI of CRM 2011.
On-premises CRM 2011 environments that will be upgraded to Orion (most likely to be called CRM 2013 or CRM 2014, depending on the actual release date) will see quite a significant change on the user interface side. Not only will the Process forms change the standard layout from a vertically scrolling list of fields to a more “widescreen” design with multiple sections side by side on a bright white canvas, also the traditional navigation components of Dynamics CRM UI will be renewed as the graphical Ribbon gets transformed into a text based menu and the left hand side navigation items get moved into the top Navigation Bar.
Concerns over the impact this upcoming change in the UI will have on existing Dynamics CRM implementations, particularly from the XRM end of the spectrum, are quite natural. If you are tasked with building a wealth of custom processes and business logic on top of the underlying platform to make it work according to customer specifications, then it may not be such a huge delight to find out that you’ll soon need to rebuild some of it to fit with the new design of the CRM presentation layer. The fact that you don’t yet have information about the SDK level changes only makes this more stressful.
What does the newly announced focus on applications and the goal of “making users love their CRM” then mean in practice? After introducing all the solution management improvements and more supported form customization techniques in CRM 2011, is Microsoft now about to turn their back on the XRM story and break existing deployments with these announced changes in Polaris and Orion? Aren’t they just ignoring the current customer base and developer ecosystem in an effort to lure in new users by selling them the concept of CRM Online on an iPad touch screen? Why not focus on fixing the existing pain points instead of acquiring more external services like Netbreeze or Marketing Pilot?
One way of looking at this is that we’re just seeing a natural stage where any piece of published software will eventually reach, which is the maintenance of legacy code. I encourage everyone to read the insightful post “Surviving Legacy Code” by Steven Sinofsky (of Office and Windows fame) where he discusses the various challenges encountered by software product development professionals tasked with maintaining and updating a system that existing customers depend on but which must also adapt to new requirements and use cases that arise over time.
I won’t attempt to rewrite Steven’s thorough analysis here, rather I’ll quote a few pieces from it to deliver the key considerations here that are relevant when thinking about the future of Dynamics CRM:
“Assuming we’re not going to just shut down the system, it will change. Some people will like the change and other’s will not. One person’s treasure is another’s trash.”
“Once your system introduces extensibility it becomes a platform. Someone, internal or external, will take advantage of your extensibility in ways you probably didn’t envision. You’ve got an instant legacy, but this legacy is now a dependency to external partners critical to your success.”
Thinking about this legacy dilemma in the XRM context, if the user interface of the platform is going through significant changes every 2-3 years, how can you rely on it to serve as the foundation for your line of business application? Well, I’d turn this question around and rather ask: how well would the LoB application remain relevant to its users over its expected lifecycle if there weren’t any updates introduced to its user experience? The point being, businesses shouldn’t choose Dynamics CRM as their XRM platform just because it provides the right set of plumbing and extensibility at this moment. The fact that someone else (meaning Microsoft) will further develop the platform for you and keep releasing new versions is equally a key benefit of the strategy, when compared to the alternative of building the whole application from scratch.
Embrace The Joys of Upgrading
To be able to reap full benefits from you platform of choice, it’s important to plan for the upgrades well in advance, meaning building your own roadmap of the kinds of investments your XRM solution will require beyond the initial go-live. Even though it’s difficult to guess what the future versions will look like and which current custom/add-on features may get built into core platform, what is relatively easy to predict is the approximate schedule of new releases that you should prepare for. An even easier task is support lifecycle of each version, which Microsoft makes publicly available for anyone to see. For example, the lifecycle of Dynamics CRM 4.0 started in February 2008 and its mainstream support ended last week, on April 9th. That’s over five years of support for the platform, even though a newer version came out two years ago. CRM 2011 on the other hand is scheduled to have around 1000 days of mainstream support by the time Orion is released.
Although running the previous version of CRM is a “luxury” reserved for the on-premises customers, getting stuck on an unsupported version is a trap that should be perfectly avoidable given the information available. Just because Orion is still some 6 months away and the first few Update Rollups for it (again, predictably released every 8 weeks) to iron out any initial bugs are even further still, that doesn’t mean you couldn’t already be formulating your upgrade strategy and planning a possible timeline for the project. For example, how about taking advantage of the Orion “preview version” of Polaris and signing up for a 30-day trial account to understand the direction where Dynamics CRM is heading?
I wrote an article on why Polaris is the Windows 8 of Dynamics CRM a while ago and I’m already starting to think that a sequel along the lines of “is Orion going to be the Windows Blue of CRM” might be in order eventually. Whenever you are serious about moving the cheese, there will be emotions both for and against the change, and you might very well not succeed with your first attempt yet. Playing it safe, however, and holding on to the legacy isn’t a viable option for the solution vendor nor the customer in the long run.
Great posting as usual Jukka. Nice reflections on where it is going.
One of the single biggest benefits to the current Dynamics CRM was the ability to modify the *always visible* navigation bar so that our users could see the items most relevant to them. Entities we don’t need or use were removed and every user is one click away from a relevant view.
I don’t care where the navigation bar is (side or top), but if I am seeing this correctly, it now looks like this is all going to be taken away and more clicks are going to be required under the guise of “making it simpler”? For instance, right now under the “my work” section I can see the 15 entities and/or views I use constantly. We’re going to lose all that now, aren’t we?
John, I doubt that the new Navigation Bar would become less customizable than the current sitemap. If anything, I’m hoping that MS will include a possibility to modify its contents right within the application, without the need for XML manipulation or additional utility solutions. That’s how I interpret their expressed aim at making CRM more configurable for the end users. We haven’t yet seen much details about the personalization options in Orion, though.
One area where I’d welcome an improvement in navigation personalization is in the Outlook client. Since starting from CRM 2011 you couldn’t easily add CRM menus to favorite folders but had to either use the Shortcuts feature or disable the solution module, this has become a somewhat distracting task to perform in the beginning of typical CRM basic training sessions for new users. Navigating through the folder hierarchy is not user friendly, but sitemap modifications are also a too cumbersome way to streamline the menus. Perhaps the new Workspace feature seen in the Orion preview UI could help with this, if it becomes more flexible than just a selection of dashboards.
What are your expectations for the outlook client?
i’d like to see more focus on mobile apps and a mobile app framework, ideally with some offline capabilities, rather than see any more effort spent on the outlook client. the world is changing (actually, its already changed) and gone are the days when a mobile fieldforce wants to use outlook in offline mode. everyone wants mobile apps optimised for their ‘device’ – whether that be tablet or phone.
contact, task and appointment sync should be banished from client side. they were planning this for R9 release according to convergence 2012. hopefully this is still on the roadmap.
with no offline client, and no client side sync, whats left? email tracking and crm within outlook. would we miss crm embedded within outlook? I suspect not.
either make email tracking an ‘office 2013 app’ and get rid of the plugin altogether, or make the email tracking the only thing the plugin does. 🙂
@nzreg: I do not agree that the Outlook experience of CRM is irrelevant. Outlook is still one of the most common programs that many people spend a substantial part of their day in, especially when they are planning, when CRM comes in handy. I do agree that mobile clients are important but the Outlook client is still a strong USP for Dyn CRm compared to the other CRM:s. As for the offlinemode, I seldom encourage it. The times I feel that it is best used is when CRM is run in high latency Environments and for that I would encourage Microsoft to develope true distributed database solutions for CRM. That would be way cool. 🙂
In terms of the Outlook client, I have to say I agree with both Gustaf’s and NZregs’ viewpoints. Yes, it is still a very important selling point when trying to get reluctant salespeople to adopt a new application as a part of their email heavy workflow. At the same time, I do often feel frustration with the user experience if I’m forced to train users exclusively through the Outlook client, since especially for data exploration and visualization I’d love to use the full browser window with no Outlook menus and other controls cluttering up the experience. Sure, CRM and the activities need to be connected to one another, but if Outlook provided a superior UI for embedding other applications inside it, surely we’d see more of these out there in the wild.
I’m sure MS can’t and won’t drop the Dynamics CRM Outlook client in its current form in the foreseeable future, with the need to support the offline experience for those selected customer groups who have a real need for it. Just like Gustaf said, I also usually introduce the possibility but advise people not to deploy the offline capability until they’ve verified that it’s a real business requirement that answers a practical problem, rather than just a nice to have feature that’s rarely needed.
Since not everyone clearly needs to have a full CRM application server + database running on their laptop, I’d very much like to see a lightweight Office App option made available for those users who only need the activity tracking buttons and links to related records. With the promise of server side synchronization arriving in Orion, delivering such a sidebar app that’s more suitable for tablet and mobile scenarios (also OWA) should obviously be on the product team’s agenda. Even if a Windows RT version of Outlook would be released at some point as the rumors suggest, there’s just no sense in draining the ARM based tablets with the full CRM Outlook client for the sake of being able to link emails and CRM records together.
Jukka, great post as ever. I have to say, as an independent, I don’t quite know what to make of Microsoft at the moment. On the one hand I really like what they are doing with Netbreeze, Yammer, and MarketingPilot, and with Polaris it’s great to see some forward momentum.
On the other hand I’ve found the flow UI pretty much unusable for the projects I’ve been working on, and have had to switch to the classic UI. I know sometimes you need to take a step back in order to take a step forward, but it doesn’t build my confidence in Microsoft, particularly on the back of their rather uncommunicative 2012. I guess we will know the answer soon enough, but I have to say at the moment at least I have some unease as to what Orion will bring for existing and future xrm projects.
Do you know if there will be any kind of preview program for partners? I would really like to apply for that.
They used to have one when they released 2011….
from what I heard, there may be a chance to sign up to a tap or beta in may/june timeframe. best to enquire via your Microsoft partner account team.
regarding lightweight office apps. for those who haven’t seen them, check out the following:
“Overview of apps for Office”
I can see all sorts of possibilities for CRM integration here, and if there are simple ways to authenticate and talk to crm (e.g. oauth/odata) then custom building one of these apps for a customer might be almost childs-play. (of course other crm vendors could use these apps too).
The mail apps will work in both outlook desktop client as well as in outlook web access. if they worked in the win8 mail client too then that would be awesome.
Great post Jukka.
One thing that got me completely of with Polaris is the changes lead qualification. Apparently MSFT decided to ‘dumb it down’, and the system no longer asks whether the user wants to create an account and/or contact and/or opportunity. Now the system creates an opportunity record no matter what.
Issue is that I have more than one client that uses CRM with leads, but no opportunity. One particular example is a academic institution that qualify leads into agencies they work with (qualifying lads into accounts helps them better asses their marketing efforts). How would that work moving forward?
Pedro, lead qualification process change is one of the more surprising side effects of Polaris, as this also applies to the old “Information” forms (still not sure what to call them, as “Classic” refers to the ribbon based rendering of the new forms, but anyway). Somehow I do understand why this design was chosen, as the transition on the new process forms needs to be seamless for the sales process indicator to make sense. Still, it forces a way of working that is not in line with how many companies use the lead records. Even if opportunities would be in use, there’s no guarantee that a new web lead or a trade show/event attendee should always be transformed into a separate opportunity record.
Currently the only workaround for this is to trigger the deletion of the opportunity record right after it is created. Gus Gonzalez wrote a great blog post on this.
Once Orion arrives, I hope this will have become a configurable part of the application rather than a hard coded process that everyone should follow. As already Polaris offers the option of creating new leads for existing accounts and contacts (a common real world need, but previously not a sensible process to implement in Dynamics CRM), I think there could well be other changes or enhancements in the pipeline for the sales process and its related entities.
Leon Tribe just used the same timeline slide that’s at the top of this post in a webinar and it got me thinking. I’m not sure I understand the difference between the blue “Orion” and the orange “Orion Mkt” that comes after it. Is “Orion Mkt” supposed to mean Orion with MarketingPilot (it is the same colour as Gemini) or does it represent some sort of more general release?
You read correctly that Gemini and Orion Mkt both refer to Marketing Pilot releases. My understanding is that Gemini is Marketing Pilot v15 and effectively facelifts it into a MS look and feel, while Orion Mkt will be the release of [some parts of] Marketing Pilot as an integrated solution with CRM, and likely release of SKUs which fit the normal MS sales model, volume licences etc. for customers who want Marketing Pilot on it’s own or the full feature set. This release should also see all this available for MS customers outside US as well.
I don’t see any mention of Orion having the ability, through a list view, to right click a record and view more details or edit fields. This avoids clicking through to another window and also allows for much more efficient updates to individual records.
Thanks for the comments. Yes, I came to the same conclusion as Gonzalo. We would have to delete the opportunity entity as it is created.
This is of course, far from perfect, and makes me wonder what was MSFT thinking. They MUST stop trying to second guess what they believe would be best for everybody and give developers and cutomisers the choice, so the system can be built around the business requirements.
I would much rather have the ability to customise a lead qualification dialog rather than have all three records created. For example, we could configure the form so to deselect the ‘create opportunity’ checkbox by default, and hide the option to create an opportunity altogether. This would be independent of the GUI (be it ‘classic’ or ‘metro’).
@Pedro – remember that “Polaris” is the “first cut” of the new UI that we will see in “Orion” and it is somewhat limited right now. Expect to see a lot more configurability in the Orion release. Hopefully we will see some beta versions soon so we can start to understand better what is coming!
P.S. why stop at one customisable lead qualification dialog? I have several departments that all want different options here – a single customisable dialog doesn’t fit the requirements, I need one for each department :p
Microsoft have a couple of options going forward, (1) innovate and release new features once they have ‘enough’ (2) develop new features and release them when they are ‘finished’. Option (2) is how the product lifecycle has worked up until Polaris and virtually nothing new got delivered in that period. Option (2) is also quite difficult as you can never get everyone to agree on how the functionality should be delivered and you also run the risk of ‘missing the market’ by the time you release something. Option (1) means that you get new functionality out and being used and it can drive conversations with the wider community about what future versions should look like.