Look and Feel
The look and feel of an accounting
what to look for and what to avoid
By J. Carlton Collins, CPA
you are in the process of evaluating an accounting software package and you are finally looking at the screen. Now what? Just
what are we supposed to looking for? When we get to this point, some of us feel like a teenager at the car lot kicking the
tires of an old jalopy as if that gave us some meaningful insights into the quality of the automobile. To many of us, simply
starring in a glazed over manner at dozens of user screens is part of the “right of passage” when it comes to
evaluating accounting software – but we really don’t get much out of it. Do not worry, I am here to help. There
are some important things to look for when reviewing the user screens of an accounting software package, as follows:
Consistent look and feel.
Fonts that are large enough to read.
Icon buttons and spinners that are large enough to easily click on.
Well-designed menus, even multiple menus.
Tabbed Dialog boxes.
Spinners, pull down boxes, and radio buttons.
Mouseless data entry.
Icons that are understandable, perhaps with tool tips thrown in.
Titles that line up, data input fields that line up.
Screens that fill the page.
The ESC closes the current window and backs you through the system.
Hyperlinks that help you drill around.
Double clicks that allow you to drill down.
To help you better understand what to look
for when it comes to “look and feel”, I have critiqued some user screens below. These screens were taken from
some of the most popular products in the land, and I think that studying these screens will help you become a better evaluator
of any accounting software system.
ACCPAC Advantage Look & Feel
The ACCPAC Advantage Series screen shown
above is used to set up employees.
Likes: I like the way ACCPAC
uses tabs to organize the seven dialog boxes – it creates a very natural look and feel and users don’t feel lost
when they navigate from screen to screen. Notice also that ACCPAC has positioned the employee number and name above this tabbed
dialog box, making it visible no matter which tab you select. This is very good design. (To learn more about tabbed dialog
boxes you might want to read this good article: http://www.iarchitect.com/tabs.htm). Finally, I like how ACCPAC has thrown in the spiral bound notebook look and feel to provide a familiar metaphor that we
can all relate to.
Dis-Likes: I do not like the
fact that screen does not fill the whole page – you can still see the clutter in the background from other applications.
In my opinion, it would be cleaner if the screen grew to fill the entire viewable area. To be fair, I know that this is very
difficult to achieve since users have so many types of monitors with differing levels of resolution. I also do not like the
way the data fields are positioned on the screen – the eye has to dart back and forth to enter or read the data. I prefer
titles that line up evenly, fields that line up evenly, and field lengths that are the same. It seems to come across more
If you study this screen carefully, you
will also see that there are no short cut key strokes provided to navigate the tabs. This means you must use a mouse in combination
with the keyboard. I prefer those products that allow the user to avoid the mouse completely if they prefer. Once you gain
proficiency with a system, the mouse just slows you down.
I would also like to see some icons added
to make it easier to say, print the employee information with a click of a button, or help you quickly set up a new record.
Microsoft Great Plains Look & Feel
The Great Plains screen shown above is used
for entering a receivable transaction.
like the way Great Plains uses colors – it seems to make it easier to pick out the fields. I like the way that the Great
Plains background fills the screen to hide background clutter from other applications. I like the way Great Plains provides
hyperlinks in some of its field labels to make it easy to jump around the system – I think this very clever, and very
usable. I like the VCR buttons at the top, however they need to add fast forward functionality to these buttons to allow the
user to jump, say, 20 records at a time through the database. I like the magnifying glass that allows you to easily drill
down into the data – this is very natural and works well. I Like the quick button in the upper right hand corner that
makes it easier to enter your next transaction.
Dis-Likes: Great Plains does
not use tabbed dialog boxes very well. For example, at the bottom of the screen you will see two buttons for distribution
and commission. Selecting these buttons will cause additional screens to pop up, which eventually clutter and confuse. I prefer
tabs. (you can see my point better by looking at the Great Plains inventory set up screen in which there are nine different
windows used to set up a single inventory item.)
MAS 90 Look & Feel
The MAS 90 screen shown above is used to
set up an inventory item.
Likes: I like the tabs at the
top, the VCR buttons at the bottom left, and the magnifying glass icons that help you drill down into the system. I especially
like the fact that you can see the current company code and the current period shown in the bottom right hand corner of the
screen – this helps users make sure that are entering data into the correct company and correct period with just a glance.
Dis-Likes: This screen is rather
busy to me. I think that the programmers would have been better off by creating a couple more tabs, and then organizing the
data fields a little better. For example, the nine buttons in the top right hand corner could have been lined up in a single
column, or better yet, in an embedded tabbed dialog box on a separate tab. The white data field boxes could be positioned
a little better so that their left edges lined up to a gridline.
Navision Look & Feel
The Navision screen above is taken from
the Contact Management module where prospects are setup and maintained.
Likes: I like the Navision
tabbed dialog box, the way the titles and data field are lined up, and I especially like allow of the icons at the top of
the screen that allow the user to quickly search, drill and manipulate the data. I like the way Navision’s background
fills the screen to hide the background clutter from other applications. I also like the fact that the name of the open company
appears at the top of the screen, and the current period appears at the bottom. The Prospect and function buttons are pull
down menus that work well – providing easy access when needed, but not cluttering the screen with a dozen menu options.
Navision’s design is extremely consistent throughout the product.
Dis-Likes: I think that the
font is a little hard to read because it is too small – perhaps an increase of 1 point would help. However, it may be
that the gray background is too dark, and this is why I feel that the titles are a little harder to read compared to other
products. I think that Navision could use a little more color – it seems to come across a little dull. Also, I am not
sure that the dots connecting the field labels to the data fields are necessary – but this is certainly not a big deal.
Look and feel is an important consideration. In general, you are
looking for screens that appear to be well-organized, easy to read, and easy to understand. There should be numerous buttons
at your disposal to help you quickly drill, filter, and print the data. I hope these ideas help when you evaluate your next
accounting system. Good luck.