The new Dynamics CRM UI that no one is using (yet)

Published on 16 June 2013

Microsoft Dynamics CRM has been around since 2003, shortly after .NET launched in 2002, which incidentally makes Dynamics CRM one of the oldest, and largest .NET applications in existence. Looking back at its previous versions, its UI design was largely built around Outlook, and the general Windows Forms paradigm, even though running CRM in a browser has always been an option. The idea seems to have been "lets make it look like a Windows Forms app", hence the browser toolbar is hidden from most windows (so no Back button) and there a a lot of use of pop-up dialogs.

Back in 2003, an application that ran in a browser but behaved like a Windows Forms app would have seemed like a good idea - people were familiar with Windows Forms. But in 2013, its entirely the other way round - people are used to web apps, use them every day, and the Dynamics CRM approach of 'multiple windows and no back button' is counter intuitive.

Using the current version of Dynamics CRM 2011, its pretty common to find yourself on a screen thats stacked above five other screens:

So Microsoft are in the process of rolling out a new UI for Dynamics CRM - variously called the "Flow UX", "Updated User Experience" or "Process Driven UI". A working preview of it was included in the early 2013 "Polaris" release, and the full version is coming in the "Orion" release "sometime late 2013".

The Dynamics CRM UI in Polaris

So lets look at whats currently available to Dynamics CRM Online users. A few (but not all) Entities in the Polaris release have optional new-style forms that look like this:

The most obvious change is a cosmetic one - this screen is a lot 'flatter' and whiter. But there's also a lot of more significant changes:

  • The Ribbon has gone, replaced by a minimalistic Command Bar
  • Record header at the top of the screen showing key fields in orange boxes
  • The 'Process Control', which can be used to lead the user through a multi-stage checklist process - more on this below
  • The screen layout is now based on three columns, the middle one being a tabbed control that can show Posts, Activities and Notes
  • Some related records can be added via 'slide-down' panels, rather than pop-up dialogs - see the 'Add new phone call' panel in the middle of the screenshot.
  • Fields are not displayed as editable fields by default. You click on them to make a change, they become editable, then the change you made is automatically saved when you move on.

The 'Process Control' is the centrepiece of the whole thing. Briefly, it works like this:

  • Each tab in the Process Control is a 'Stage'. Within a stage is a number of Steps

  • As you click on each Step, you are asked to do something. Generally there are three types of Step:

  • Fill in a field - a panel will appear with the appropriate control (textbox, dropdown, datepicker or whatever) to let you fill it in

  • Tick off an item - more basic, just clicking on the Step marks it as 'done'

  • Other action - there are a handful of steps in Polaris that do apparently quite specific things, e.g. the 'Similar Cases' step on the Case process reveals a large panel that lets you search through other cases to help find a solution to the current one.

  • A process can span more than one entity - in Polaris, the 'sales' process starts on Lead and then moves the user to Opportunity on the second stage.

Its quite an innovative piece of work, and depending on which direction Microsoft develop it in, could be very useful indeed. I'll cover the 'Process Control' in more detail in a future post.

Why no-one is using the new UI yet

In Polaris, the new style forms are optional, and I suspect that practically no-one is using them in production at the moment, due to various limitations, including:

  • No Javascript customisations can be attached to the On load, On change or On save events on the new forms
  • There's no way to add related records from within the forms - this is a pretty serious limitation:

(To make matters worse, if you do press the "+ New" button in the above screenshot, you end up in a blank "New Contact" form with no way of getting back to where you were before - because there's no Back or Cancel button)

Also, aesthetically, if you try and use the new forms at the moment, lots of other features still use the old style (main page, dashboards, advanced find, pop-up find boxes, etc) and so you're constantly switching between different UI schemes.

Hence, currently we have an interesting preview of the direction the UI is heading in, but it really is only a preview. So whats coming in Orion?

The Dynamics CRM UI in Orion

Microsoft unveiled some screenshots of the Orion UI at the Convergence 2013 conference in March. The big news is that Dynamics CRM will now operate in a single window paradigm - that is, everything can happen in one browser window, and the browser back button works as expected. So no more 6-deep nests of Dynamics pop-ups. That said, the user doesn't have to just use one tab, if they want they can have several different records open in different browser tabs, but no one tab would be the 'main' tab.

For a single window paradigm to work, you need a ubiquitous navigation method that is always present on every screen. So that brings us to the new Navigation Bar:

The Navigation Bar is a dark-blue bar at the top of every Dynamics form, and conceptually it is pretty simple:

  • Its horizontal
  • It behaves like a Breadcrumb trail, showing where you are in the navigation hierarchy
  • Each 'crumb' of the Breadcrumb trail has a drop-down menu allowing you to choose where to go next

Here's how it looks at different levels in the hierarchy, with the drop-down menus on display:

Note that after choosing an entity at the second level (e.g. 'Opportunities') you would find yourself looking at the default view of that entity (see below), from which you can choose a record. The new Navigation Bar also gives you an easy way to see recently used records (see third level, above).

Related records are at the 'fourth' level, and addition of new records (e.g. adding a new activity) can be acheived through quick create panels:

So this solves the problem of 'adding related records' that was in Polaris. Notice also that the left-hand side navigation that was on the Polaris UI has disappeared - this was a compromise between the old and new UIs, but in Orion all the navigation controls are along the top of the screen.

Each 'Area' (Sales, Service, Marketing etc) has its own dashboards, and it looks like the overall 'Workspace' area from previous versions is being removed.

The 'Surviving CRM' blog by Jukka Niiranen has a great post about the Orion interface that goes into more detail.

During Convergence 2013 Michael McCormack mentioned that Orion will not look exactly the same in the Outlook client: Running as an Outlook plug-in imposes constraints on the possibilities - for example, a left hand side navigation bar is practically obligatory in Outlook. Michael didn't say exactly how it would be, but I suspect the Outlook client version of Orion will not look quite as slick as the browser version. Along with the server-side exchange integration that is supposed to be arriving with Orion, this is another hint that the Outlook Client for CRM seems destined to become less important.

The addition of the Navigation Bar makes the new UI properly complete, and Microsoft have said that they intend to move all current functionality over to the new UI for Orion. This also means the whizzy new Process Control will be available for all entities, presumably including custom ones.

When and How will the Orion UI arrive?

Officially, Microsoft are saying that Orion is due in 'Q3 2013' or 'the second half of 2013', but given the scale of the change to the UI, and the way that Polaris arrived later than expected, I think that might be optimistic. I think 'the first half of 2014' is probably more realistic, and when it arrives Orion could well be called 'MS Dynamics CRM 2014'.

To move to the new UI, a huge amount of beta-testing and customisation tweaking is going to be necessary. Microsoft are designing the new UI to be backwards compatible for customisations; as long as you are using officially supported methods of customisation, then your customisations should make it through to the new UI. However at Convergence 2013, Michael McCormack said

"But backwards compatibility doesn't mean it automatically looks beautiful. It means it works. It'll come forward but you may need to work at getting it to fit the new form models better."

Hence: revisiting your customisations to make sure they fit with the new UI is going to be recommended.

The new UI will be the default UI for Orion, and Microsoft are hinting that the classic forms and the ribbon may be completely removed. That will be a pretty major step, and the current vibe seems to be that whether or not that happens will depend on how confident Microsoft are that they have made the new UI comprehensive enough. Jukka Niiranen summed it up well on a LinkedIn discussion:

"I think the way it's been communicated by people from Microsoft is that they have a clear intention of removing the classic forms from Orion. Most presenters still leave the options open, so while there may be a plan B for the UI transition in case the product team runs out of time for fully migrating all the existing features onto the new UI in Orion, it's best to start preparing for the new world where only the process forms and single window navigation logic will be available."

For on-premise or partner-hosted customers, this would be a traditional 'upgrade to the new version or not' scenario - customers will be able to look at their customisations and maybe try a test upgrade and decide what they want to do.

For Dynamics CRM Online customers though, its going to be a bit more complicated. A major new version is coming, that completely changes the UI, and the old UI may well no longer be available. How is that going to be handled? The Polaris update, when it came to CRM Online, was fairly low impact - Microsoft emailed customers to tell them a rough two-week window of when their organisation was getting the update, and then one day it would arrive. There were then options available in the settings to turn on the new features.

I can't see how Microsoft will be able to do the same thing with Orion - you can't completely change the UI of a cloud service without giving the users some choice about which day the upgrade will happen. So perhaps Online customers will get an 'upgrade button' that they can choose when to press. But then how can they test it first? And how can they train staff to use it beforehand?

The recently added 'multiple instances' feature of CRM Online provides a clue to what might happen. I think a sensible way for Microsoft to handle the upgrade for Online customers would be to give them a 'test copy' of their instance that has been upgraded to Orion, so that they can check their customisations still work, tweak them as necessary, and then start user training. They could then upgrade their live instance when they were ready. Indeed, this is how Salesforce handle their own twice-yearly upgrades.

So far though, Microsoft are keeping their cards close to their chest. Last week they turned on an 'Orion partner launch portal', although it doesn't seem to have much in it yet - another hint that we are still many months away from the Orion release.

So, in summary, the new Orion UI looks like a great improvement, but its going to take a bit of work to get Online customers onto it without too much disruption.