Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Dynamics NAV 5.1 - Introduction

This presentation from Convergence 2007 gave me my first real look at Dynamics NAV 5.1. Jesper Lachance Ræbild and Frank Fugl do a great job and if you are interested in the next release of Dynamics NAV, I recommend you take 50 minutes to watch the presentation.

The Dynamics NAV 5.1 release is all about adding cutting-edge technology on top of the rich functionality provided in the 5.0 release. Jesper says that there is no new application functionality in 5.1 compared to 5.0 (although there has been mention of RFID support in other material.) The message to companies wanting this new technology is to upgrade to NAV 5.0 now in preparation for 5.1.

Dynamics NAV 5.1 will provide:

  • A Role-tailored User Experience
  • Web Services
  • A 3-tier Architecture
  • .NET Compliance

The way the Dynamics NAV team have delivered the technology has kept to NAV's core values of simplicity, flexibility and ease of use.

The new architecture will use the same application logic, the same office integration, and the same outlook integration as we currently have in version 5.0 so you will be wise to spend your time learning these new features and understanding the application enhancements.

Jesper tells us that the new architecture is meta-data based, and to go from NAV 5.0 to 5.1 you will need to use a transformation process to create the new pages and reports. Microsoft will deliver transformation tools that will take the application and forms and transform them into the new technology. There may be some manual intervention required, but the tools should take you most of the way.

Role-tailored User Experience

Role centre is the new term for the home page that is configured to meet the requirements of the user. The main screen comprises a Navigation Pane and an Activities Pane (tailored to the role being played by the user.) Jesper makes an analogy to a car that remembers your preferences for seat, steering wheel, and mirror positions in order to meet your driving needs. A number of roles from the Dynamics customer model will be delivered in conjunction with tools to allow new roles to be created.

Selecting options from the Navigation Pane takes the user straight into a list view which Jesper called a "List Place" (rather than the card form used in earlier versions.) Apparently, research has shown that in previous versions people would open the menu option and then immediately launch the list from the card in order to be able to search.

When looking at the Sales Order List Place, we see Actions, Related Information and Reports drop down menus. Linked to the list are fact boxes that update relative to the selected record and can show details such as Customer Statistics, Customer Details and Notes.

The main window has an address bar that can be used to navigate in a similar way to breadcrumbs on a web site. There are browser-style forward and back buttons allowing you to easily go back to your previous location (a feature that I think will prove very popular.) Microsoft has clearly put a lot of thought into the new user experience and their efforts appear to have paid off.

The pages can be personalised by the individual users but can also be configured by a systems administrator and distributed out to the users or groups of users.

The character of NAV has remained and I think existing users will adapt easily to the new features. A good example of this is the way record filtering has been implemented. The principal is the same as the old-style record filters but the use of a nice Filter Pane, a new layout and some extra text and buttons helps to make the filtering process more intuitive. Including a few English words such as "Show Results", "Where" the field name "is" made me realise how alien the old filtering form really was. It is good to see that the team have kept the powerful expressions that are used to denote ranges, relative and logical selections. I would like to see a more graphical filtering pane similar to those found in CRM 3.0 or SQL 2005 Report Builder but maybe this will come with time.

The list can be opened in a new window by selecting an option from the Action menu or by using a key-combination. This gives a similar experience to opening folders in a new window from within Outlook. It appears that the design team have used Outlook as their inspiration for how an application should present information and options to the user. The team have done well and the demonstration certainly showed a system that is likely to be well received.

There are many customisation options that should meet the needs of most users. Some of the new features are quite exciting such as the Freeze Pane–a really useful feature similar to the Freeze Panes option in Excel that allows you to lock columns on the left hand side when scrolling horizontally. It reminded me a little of the old Matrix form control but obviously it is showing fields form a single data set and not a cross-tab.

Double-clicking a record in the list place mirrors the Outlook paradigm well and behaves similarly to the process of opening an e-mail from your inbox in Outlook. The details for the record open in a new window called a Task Page. This is similar to the CRM 3.0 experience and I know that some users may not like this. I like it but it does lead to quite a few windows being opened.

The tabbed-form control has been replaced with new Fast Tabs that allow more than one tab to be open at any time with the ability to promote certain fields to be displayed on the "tab band" (my term not their's) when minimised.

The customisation of the task pages allows the fast tabs to be removed from the display or customised to a field level. Each field can now have different levels of importance Standard, Promoted and Additional. A promoted field will be displayed on the fast tab band so that it is visible without needing to open the tab. The additional fields will be temporarily hidden until the user clicks on a control to reveal the additional information. I really like this and it shows a lot of thought from the design team.

It appears that the old drop-down and look-up buttons have been replaced with a single combo-box-style control which makes a lot more sense. I have not seen any evidence of what happens to assist-edit buttons and drill-down fields. The phrase Jesper used was "taking away the clutter" – something I know a lot of users will applaud.

The action pane is similar to the ribbon in Office 2007 although it does not behave exactly the same. I prefer the Office 2007 ribbon. You can think of the Action Pane as a way of promoting common actions from the Actions menu for quick access (you can also increase the size of actions on the Pane which makes them larger and therefore more easily accessible.) Jesper says they have taken "elements of the Office 2007 user experience and added them into Dynamics NAV."

The export to office using XSLT stylesheets works in the same way as NAV 5.0 so the old stylesheets can still be used.

In my next posting, I'll discuss the presentation of the new reporting environment and the use of Web Services.

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