Straight-Through Workflows™: the future of the financial desktop
Users care about data and workflows to get their jobs done not applications. And, they work across multiple applications. Yet for years our design thinking for the desktop has been centered around building applications in isolation. Reena Raichura, Director, Head of Product Solutions at Glue42 explores the concept of Straight-Through Workflows™ and how they can break through discrete applications to bring unification to the financial desktop.
As desktop interoperability continues to gain momentum, our design thinking must change. We can no longer design applications in silos. To build a financial desktop fit for the future we need to put users and their workflows at the heart of the design process and take a holistic and open approach to application development. Introducing Straight-Through Workflows™…
I remember back to when I first started out as a humble user interface (UI) developer in the early noughties. We didn’t just work in application silos, we worked in ‘module’ silos. Trading applications would be broken up into different modules for order management, execution management, market data, position, risk, etc., and each assigned to a different team. The end user would then receive these modules bundled together as ‘one’ application, but often they had to master different functions, features, terminology, and colours in each module. It was far from a cohesive user experience, and this was just a single application!
As UI design and development evolved, the focus went on improving stability and deployment of front-end applications by moving them from a ‘fat client’ to ‘thin client’ architecture. This addressed the challenges of application supportability, but the end user experience remained the same.
Next came a growing demand for personalisation. And so, with thin client architecture firmly on the rise, we saw toolbars, floating windows, workspaces, and user preferences which certainly seemed game-changing at the time. Suddenly windows could be placed anywhere on the desktop and saved as workspaces. Additionally, toolbars were role-based so users no longer had to put up with windows that they didn’t use. This revolutionised the way that users worked allowing them, at the application level at least, to personalise their experience.
Then, what happened next was interesting. UI developers had seen the light and were not going to stop there. Personalisation opened the door to the whole user experience (UX) movement, and this suddenly emerged as the next big thing. To some extent it was. The building blocks for user experience had been established and now it was about harmonising applications in terms of colour, clarity, consistency, and features. But each application development team (whether in-house or 3rd party) would approach and solve this challenge differently.
At the same time, new architectural patterns began to emerge in the form of micro-apps and micro-services. In 2012, I was involved in building an in-house next-gen trading platform based on this architecture. We had gone from building monolithic applications to building modules in monolithic applications to building floating windows in monolithic applications to now building micro applications. We went even further. We introduced one of the earliest forms of desktop interoperability which allowed both the new micro applications and the old monolithic applications to talk to each other. Revolutionary? Absolutely, but the rationale behind this was to speed up application development and delivery cycles by breaking down the monolith rather than creating a new type of trading experience for maximum business impact. Desktop interoperability seemed to be a by-product of breaking down the monolith more than anything else.
In parallel to this, top-tier vendors took a different stance but only with modest success. OEMS vendors, for example, started expanding their trading platforms by building a ‘super monolith’ and adding analytics, CRM functions and more to the point where their original specialism became diluted. For the end-user, this meant putting up with underperforming features in a single application and having few alternatives.
What was consistent throughout all these innovations was that our design thinking remained the same. Application-centric. We continued to design and build in application silos with a focus on features over flows and, unfortunately, this is still going on today.
The problem is users don’t care about applications, they care about business processes and data to get their jobs done. This means they rarely work in just one application; they work across multiple applications. Yet as developers and vendors, we have only cared about our applications in isolation. Therefore, our users have been restricted to data and workflows within the confines of each application and this rarely matches the way that they work.
Fast forward to 2022 and businesses have moved forward but our design thinking hasn’t.
There is no doubt that the pandemic shone a spotlight on desktop interoperability. Firms had to redesign their desktop setups almost overnight to support remote working and for the first time, they had to understand how their users were interacting with the data and applications in front of them. Since then, desktop interoperability has continued to gain momentum.
At the same time, digitisation has seen the emergence of specialist Fintechs coming to the market to fill the gaps in tools and data sets that firms now demand to stay competitive. This has led to further information fragmentation on the desktop and an even greater need to analyse end user workflows and build seamless holistic integration.
We are also seeing a significant shift in mindset as businesses reject the traditional dichotomy of build or buy for something far more nuanced. These firms want to mix and match best-of-breed applications with their own IP to create superior and seamless workflow and platform experiences for their end users. And today, many of these users are digital natives and expect their desktops to work in the same way as their cell phones. These users want intelligent and integrated desktops to support their workflows. They want workflow and data-driven desktops.
The problem is our current approach to desktop interoperability can only take us so far. While some vendors have embraced desktop interoperability, others are reluctant to ‘open up’ and still see a competitive threat if they do so. The result is a mixture of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ applications and even those that are ‘open’ only support basic desktop interoperability since they have not been designed with workflows in mind. But the business is pushing for change, and we as vendors need to support this change. Therefore, we can no longer design and develop applications in isolation.
We have reached a tipping point.
To be a good desktop citizen, our design thinking must change.
I say kill application-centric design and embrace Straight-Through Workflows (STW)™…
Frustrated by how we have been developing applications and approaching desktop interoperability, I wanted to find a revolutionary way to take desktop interoperability into the future. I was inspired by what Straight-Through Processing had done for back-end process automation in trading and was pondering FIX and FDC3 and that’s when the idea came to me: Straight-Through Workflows™.
In its literal form, Straight-Through Workflows™ is about allowing data to flow electronically and seamlessly from one application to others regardless of the underlying application technologies, on the desktop.
However, it’s much bigger than that.
Straight-Through Workflows™ is a shift in design thinking for the desktop. It’s about blurring the boundaries of applications and looking at the desktop holistically by analysing end-to-end business processes, workflows, and user journeys first before designing an underlying solution. The result is a solution that matches the needs of end users, has a real business impact, and creates the type of seamless workflow experiences that the business is demanding.
Straight-Through Workflows™ is also a vision, ideology, and a goal. It’s about the financial services community coming together to do something ground-breaking and solve a major business and technological problem that is impacting our industry.
If the earliest version of desktop interoperability was about breaking down the monolith and the current version of desktop interoperability is about basic connectivity between applications, then Straight-Through Workflows™ is about taking desktop interoperability into the future and solving complex business challenges. STW is not just about automating low-value workflows, it’s about automating workflows that provide high business value. It’s about creating data-driven desktops. It’s about users not even being aware of the applications they are using and just getting on with their jobs. It’s about putting the user and their workflows at the heart of the design process. Above all, it’s about creating engaging and highly productive experiences.
To achieve Straight-Through Workflows™, the following will be critical for success:
In today’s digital era, an application’s value increases by the workflows, data and platforms it can be part of. Thus, it is only when we shift our design thinking and transcend the borders of applications that we will begin to create the type of unified desktop experiences that our users desire and that have maximum business impact.
It is my hope and vision that Straight-Through Workflows™ will serve as a beacon for our community and industry to come together and take desktop interoperability into the future in the same pioneering way that Straight-Through Processing did for equities trading in the 90s. This is when desktop interoperability will come into its own and solidify its place within the Fintech ecosystem.
To see Straight-Through Workflows™ in action click here.