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Salesforce has revealed its revamped Lightning Experience user interface - but how has it fared? ComputerworldUK's Charles Stevenson provides a first look review of Lightning Experience.

Salesforce unveiled the new desktop user interface for its core CRM platform in a live webcast earlier this week. Known as ‘Lightning Experience’, the new interface is a dramatic overhaul of the look and feel of the world’s leading CRM system and addresses criticisms that Salesforce had fallen behind rival CRM platforms in terms of visual appeal and ease of use.  

Lightning Experience - which will be made available free of charge to customers as part of the next scheduled software release - has been described by Salesforce as the most significant update to the desktop interface in its 16-year history.

However it is not entirely new. Lightning Experience is a project that Salesforce has been working on since at least 2013, and we have already seen the technology on the company’s mobile apps. So it is not surprising that the new desktop interface shares a lot of the visual features in common with the mobile experience.

The existing Salesforce desktop user interface is looking rather tired compared with more modern websites and mobile apps. Users’ expectations have risen as enterprise apps have started to catch up with consumer-facing websites and apps. Consequently, the appearance of Salesforce seems to have fallen behind the best.

Salesforce Lightning Experience review: What's new?

Cosmetically, the Lightning Experience interface is much more modern looking, with a more flexible layout, and more emphasis on displaying information visually, rather than heavily relying on text and numbers.

 © Salesforce

But probably the most striking difference is that the whole interface is much more dynamic. In the old ‘Classic’ interface, each screen is essentially a static HTML web page, and generally only gets updated if the user refreshes the page. Lightning Experience screens, on the other hand, behave much more animatedly. For example, if you change a number the screen immediately updates any totals or charts, without you needing to reload the page.

As well as giving the interface a more modern appearance it allows more dynamic interactions such as drag and drop, animations and instant visual feedback.

Screens are more focused around what a user needs to do, so administrators can design layouts that bring relevant information into a single screen, rather than making users jump from page to page, which should help with productivity, as well as user training and adoption.

Two new features also announced as part of the release will be very popular with Sales users:

  • Pipeline Board - Allows users to see their pipeline and drag and drop opportunities between various Sales Stages to immediately see the effect on their forecast.
  • Sales Path - Guides users to keep an opportunity moving forward with customised information for your organisation’s sales process.  Ideal for new starters.

And a completely new analytics engine means much prettier charts, reports and dashboards, and those components appear in more places, so screens have more visual variety with animated graphics.

Salesforce Lightning Experience review: Reports, Charts and Dashboards

The entire reporting engine has had a complete overhaul, inheriting a lot of the technology from Salesforce’s recent Wave analytics system. The look and feel is a huge improvement on the existing interface. By way of example, the number one requested feature from the user community over the last eight years has been to allow more than three columns in a dashboard.

The vendor’s webcast demonstration this week showed components being dynamically resized to allow four or more smaller components, or fewer large components. Those charts are also animated which may sound slightly gimmicky, but certainly gain your attention and look clearer and better formatted.

© Salesforce

Salesforce Lightning Experience review: Pipeline Board

Another feature Salesforce is clearly proud of is the ‘Pipeline Board’. This view of your open opportunities displays them as a set of cards in columns, based on what stage in the sales process they were. It looks similar to Kanban boards, and is a very neat logical view to clearly show at a glance where your deals are.

But even nicer, is the ability to drag and drop those opportunities from column to column, which automatically updates the records, as well as updating the totals on the board.

Salesforce Lightning Experience review: Impact on existing customers

Clearly Lightning Experience is a big deal for Salesforce and it recognises that it will also be a big change for their customers, so it is going to be an optional switch-over. The existing interface will continue to exist and it is something that the vendor proposes should be tested carefully to understand if it is right for your organisation yet.

Salesforce expects everyone to use the Lightning Experience eventually, but it recognises that this won’t be right for everybody immediately. Not least, because the Winter ‘16 release only covers the Sales Cloud, so users of the Service Cloud or Sales Console will have to wait for future releases before they will be able to take advantage of the new interface.

And there are actually quite a few features of the Sales Cloud that are not directly supported in the new interface and those features may be deal-breakers for some organisations. For example Quotes, Forecasting and Campaigns stand out as potentially critical features for lots of companies, so you may choose to wait for a future release before switching it on.

Salesforce emphasised that the new interface supports all of your existing ‘point-and-click’ customisations in terms of data and processes, but you will need to evaluate any Visualforce pages and any user interface ‘tricks’ that you may have developed over the years. For example many customers will have used Javascript to improve the user interface. These ‘hacks’ are unlikely to work in Lightning Experience, so developers will need to look at workarounds. There are a few other glitches that you may come across - particularly when moving between supported and un-supported features.

Salesforce Lightning Experience review: Devices and Browsers

The new interface is based on standard modern web technologies and should make it easier for developers to develop for multiple devices and screen sizes. In theory, new Lightning development written for the desktop should work on mobile, tablet and smart watches without needing to be re-written.

On the desktop, Chrome and Mozilla browsers are supported but only the latest Internet Explorer (version 11) and Safari (version 8). This may be an issue for IT departments with strict desktop software policies.

Salesforce Lightning Experience review: Backwards Compatibility

Certainly, you will need to do some work to take advantage of the new interface, and product launch demos always gloss over the teething problems that you should expect from such a big technology update. So organisations should treat this as having significant impact, and should test and evaluate before rolling out to everyone. It is going to be possible to trial the new interface with pilot groups of users, and Salesforce are keen to emphasise that it is easy to switch back and forth between the two interfaces as required.

Salesforce partners who build and sell add-on apps for the platform have had early access to the new interface and should already be working on testing and redeveloping those apps to make sure they work in the new interface, but you would be wise to talk to them directly if they are key to your business processes

Salesforce Lightning Experience review: Summary

Overall, Lightning Experience looks very impressive. The old interface has felt extremely dated compared to rival CRM systems so the new look and feel should really help with user adoption.

New customers who are evaluating CRM systems, should now see the Salesforce user interface as good as, or better than, the competition, which has not been the case for a few years now.

I also think existing customers will see this as a very positive move by Salesforce. This release is not the finished article, with several restrictions and limitations so many companies will choose to wait for a future version, but Salesforce has a good track record of supporting backwards compatibility, so even if you are not able to switch to the new interface immediately, you should not be negatively impacted in the meantime.

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