Apparel PLM: User Rebellion?

Jo Hughesapparel plm, enterprise solutions

PLM user rebellion

Don’t you just love those moments where some other like-minded soul publicly advocates what you have been saying for years. Well I had one of those moments today after reading Karen Appleton’s “Workplace Rebellion: Savvy Workers Drive Technology Transformation” article for the Huffington Post.

“Why is it that consumer technologies make sharing so easy, while our workplace resources linger in the dark ages? With today’s user-friendly Web 2.0 technologies, consumers can connect, share and collaborate without storage concerns, hefty price tags, or costly maintenance. Today’s entrenched (and expensive) enterprise software offerings, however, emphasize IT control and top-down management, with a Web 1.0 (aka crappy) user experience. IT departments are bogged down by frequent product upgrades, regular maintenance, and heavy administration with little time to explore new technologies that would give their companies a competitive edge.
Why do we have it so much better as consumers? Because the applications we love — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube — have all been designed with the end user in mind”
– Karen Appleton

Having spent many years working with enterprise PLM software it’s always amazed me the lack consideration for the end user these systems have. One of my favourite sayings whilst working for one software vendor that supplied apparel PLM was “designed by engineers for fashion designers, but actually only useable by IT people”. A few of my colleagues agreed we needed to improve usability but most of the time my protests fell on deaf ears as the general consensus was it had all the required business processes covered and it got the job done, even if you didn’t like the way it did it. It was selling and Mr End User didn’t hold the purse strings. Mr Holder Of The Purse Strings was mightily impressed with heroic tales of ROI, daring feats of R&D expenditure, architectural wizardry and the solid dependability of an established institution. Mr Software Vendor secretly didn’t mind that Mr End User was likely to face hard times, as hard times meant more service days.

You see the problem is that for too long many enterprise PLM providers have been working to a business model that is actually at loggerheads with the end user requirements. To give you a little analogy, purchasing enterprise PLM is a bit like buying a car from one of these big chains of car dealers. You think you’re purchasing a nice shiny new car, when in fact what you are actually purchasing is a finance agreement. There is more profit in the finance agreement than there is in the car. Well it’s the same with enterprise PLM – there is more profit in the service agreement, the software is like a by-product. This unfortunately means that it isn’t necessarily in the software vendor’s best interest to make the implementation super snappy and the system magnificently intuitive for poor Mr End User.

However all that could be about to change. The policy of paying little attention to the end user’s requirements worked well for many years as Mr End User unfortunately didn’t really know any better. But as more and more “Millennials” enter the workplace, the generation who grew up on the internet, Mr End User is suddenly becoming much more informed. And it’s not just the Millennials – they were just the first to catch on. Employees of all ages and demographics are now embracing the user-friendly Web 2.0 technologies and the disparity between the user-experience driven consumer technologies and the profit driven clunkiness of the enterprise applications has never been more apparent or recognised. Mr Holder Of The Purse Strings may find himself faced with a user revolt if he doesn’t pay attention to their demands.

So what does this mean for Apparel PLM vendors?

I would predict that those who now focus on user experience will have the competitive advantage and start to gain market share. It’s time to abandon the old model of “they’re stuck with it now”, and make systems that people want to use, and can more intuitively use – pay attention to the detail.

I was recently called back into a company to support users that had gone live with their PLM eight weeks previously as the users were still struggling to use PLM and mistakes in use were slowing up the product development process and also resulting in costly sampling and production mistakes. Next week I’m off to rescue another company who are trying to calm their disgruntled workforce and figure out if the problems they are facing are a result of users not using the system correctly or if it’s the system not doing what it’s supposed to be doing and an expensive upgrade is needed.

Whoever needed a consultant and a trainer for Facebook? You might think of this as a simplistic argument that isn’t comparing apples for apples. But think about it. PLM is about creating products and collections and communicating with the supply chain. They have done this for years. You are not trying to teach them rocket science (reminds me rather fondly of one exasperated customer who, mixed with a few profanities, shouted the words “we are trying to design garments, not send rockets into space!”); there should be a fair level of intuitiveness with using an application to support a process they know inside out. Of course PLM in its scope is larger than Facebook, and maybe even the company’s previous product development process, so there will always be a level of training required – but it should not be to the point where users are still pulling their hair out after training and weeks of practise and use.

Now to be fair, there are apparel PLM vendors paying more attention to user experience than others, so they are not all guilty, but there are precious few I would describe as being designed with the end user in mind. So I’m with Karen Appleton on this one – let the workplace rebellion begin.

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Jo Hughes
With a background in fashion design, Jo has worked with many international retail and apparel companies, implementing solutions to help them work more efficiently to develop products.

She has a detailed understanding of the apparel product development process and the supporting systems including PLM, PDM, CAD and 3D garment design.